The Government must decide the framework before discussing details. Elaine Williams reports
IT IS DIFFICULT to know what to do with building blocks if you have no insight as to what the house might look like. So, while the Government is praised for sending out a genuine post-16 consultation document in "Qualifying for Success" and showing its willingness to listen, many bodies would like some architectural vision. In other words, while education ministers take a Burkean view that the larger picture will emerge if the detail is first attended to, there is a gathering consensus from educationists that the architecture should be put in place first and the technical particulars sorted out afterwards.
Indeed, there is some indication from officials that the Government would be happy to give more prominence to a framework if the consensus were strong enough. What it does not want is to appear to be making the running alone.
Bodies such as the Secondary Heads Association and the Headmasters and Headmistresses Association, not normally known for their radicalism, perceive the benefits of a broad-based curriculum under over-arching certification. They have pressed their views already in meetings with officials and ministers through the influential Joint Associations Curriculum Group of heads and principals. Other participants such as the Association of Colleges and the National Association of Head Teachers, and academics such as Ken Spours from the Post-16 Education Centre at the Institute of Education, London, also agree that the Government has viewed "Qualifying for Success" through the wrong end of the telescope.
David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, said: "The Government has partly submerged its body but refuses to go the whole way. The document fails to recognise that we must have a broader curriculum for all 16 to 19-year-olds - sooner rather than later. Approaching the issue in an incremental way allows constituents to drop out. There is an inbred conservatism in the university system. That will rule the roost if the Government is not careful. Reform should not depend on whether universities will accept it. It's a matter of political will."
Dr John Moore, headmaster of The King's School and chairman of HMC's academic policy sub-committee, commends the Government for moving forward on the new AS level, but regrets this is not part of a 14-19 curriculum review. He said: "My personal view is that in the end the GCSE will wither on the vine so that we have 12 or 13 subjects at key stage 3, nine or 10 at 16, five the following year and two or three A-levels the year after." More significantly, he believed that once "reasonable comparability between GCSE and A-level had been demonstrated" there was no barrier to an overarching qualification. He said: "I wouldn't go to the stake over the title A-level so long as the academic approach and scholarship were available. But whereas some need breadth and depth, others just need breadth."
John Dunford, headteacher of Durham Johnstone comprehensive in Durham and a member of the Joint Association, said there was "a considerable meeting of minds with ministers" over what could be achieved by 1999 - the new AS and the six-unit GNVQ and "possibly" a structure of qualifications in key skills. He acknowledged that this would be "better than what we have at the moment" but doubted whether it would create significantly greater breadth and regretted the lack of an overarching framework.
The Joint Association has looked into the practicality of a modular A-level structure which would require two modules to be taken in the first year and four in the second. This would allow for greater breadth in the first year of post-compulsory study, with as many as five two-module AS levels being taken, narrowing down to two or three A-levels in the second.
Ken Spours, however, believes that this is too convoluted and that the three-unit building block - transparent and flexible - creating a system similar to what is on offer in Scotland, is the way forward.
Parent bodies such as the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations are concerned that the efforts of students taking a broader or more vocational mix should be recognised by those who count - universities and employers. But employers do not speak with one voice.
While the Confederation of British Industry supports the explicit assessment of key skills "though not in an academic, conventional way", and broadening the curriculum under an overarching framework, the Institute of Directors, which represents more small businesses, is much more conservative. The IOD believes that broadening A-levels represents a "dilution of standards", that vocational and academic pathways should remain distinct, that an overarching qualification would create confusion and that aligning the grading system for GNVQs and A-levels "would not be helpful at this time". It also states that although employers support the acquisition of key skills, this comes through "injecting rigour and raising standards".
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University, also believes that key skills should be met through raising standards in compulsory schooling, not through compulsion post-16.
Mary Lord, director of education and training at the TEC National Council, also highlights the difficulty of introducing "meaningful" key skills. She said: "You have to have a model that is relevant to any employer in any situation and that will also work in schools and colleges. That is not easy."
Teaching unions are concerned about the resource implications of broadening the post-16 curriculum. Olwyn Gunn, assistant secretary for education at the National Association of SchoolmastersUnion of Women Teachers, said that the proposed reforms could not be achieved without massive costs in terms of resources for students, teachers and in-service training. New courses, such as those in key skills, could only be taught with additional staffing. "In many institutions there will be a need for an increase in teaching levels, but at no point in the document is there evidence that this has been investigated. "
No wonder that the Government has chosen the softly-softly approach.