Don't delay in imposing the inevitable reforms

21st November 1997 at 00:00
FIVE YEARS ago a survey by The TES of the leading 60 education and employment organisations in England and Wales revealed an overwhelming desire to scrap A-levels. The Government of the day had failed to grasp the opportunity for a compromise which would still satisfy the majority seeking radical reforms.

Sir Gordon Higginson's post-16 inquiry had called for five "leaner and tougher" A-levels to broaden the base of studies, replacing the narrow diet of three subjects. Its rejection and subsequent fudge over AS levels had left a sour note.

Judging by responses so far to the latest Government consultation document, "Qualifying for Success", the yearning for change has not diminished. Many look to Labour to bring about such reforms - sooner rather than later.

Baroness Blackstone, the lifelong learning minister, in her foreword to this special supplement, eschews the tinkerers. She maps out plans for a high quality system that gives credit where it's due to all, regardless of age and status in the work and education markets.

The language used by Lady Blackstone is redolent of Higginson and of the more recent 16-19 inquiry by Sir Ron Dearing; it is also similar to the phraseology used by the architects of overarching diplomas and baccalaureates. She acknowledges - though some will think a little grudgingly -that radical change is inevitable.

But this Labour Government is in grave danger of failing, as did the Tories, to grasp the issues speedily enough. If it cogitates too long and leaves the really radical reforms to the hoped-for second term of office and whim of the electorate, it could be a decade or more before the crunch questions are really tackled.

There is no excuse for delays in transforming the face of the whole 14-19 curriculum and exam system (it is not just a question of what happens post-16). Scotland has been tackling the question of the academic and vocational divide, to which England has belatedly turned, for almost 30 years.

But what happens when a truly different system to that divide is offered, with considerable evidence of success, south of the border? In Wales, a home-grown baccalaureate, the WelshBac, has been sat on by the same English ministers consulting over A-levels. More than 50 schools, colleges and universities, backed by business, wanted the Bac to replace A-levels. The structure of the programmes reflect much of the Government thinking. But the leading lights behind the WelshBac are far from dissatisfied. They accuse ministers of a "misguided" commitment to A-levels.

The International Baccalaureate, also developed in Wales, has long been seen as more than a rival to A-level in stretching the most able academically. The WelshBac is proven to go further. The breadth and depth of the programme would stretch the more able and at the same time give status to courses wholly or partly vocational in character.

Since the rejection of Higginson, much has already changed, not least the structure of support for the post-16 curriculum and exams. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has been formed to merge responsibilities for academic and vocational studies under a single body. Exam boards have been told to merge similarly, to provide a unified framework for A-levels and general vocational studies.

Tough regulations are being imposed to ensure that standards set for national vocational qualifications are not allowed to slip. More than 1,600 national vocational qualifications were cancelled and Pounds 5 million retrieved from training and enterprise councils responsible for theiradministration.

But all these new tough regulations and reigning in of bureaucracies will count for nothing if A-levels remain as the gold standard - a standard which by definition only gold can reach.

Whether it is a baccalaureate or overarching diploma or whatever, which becomes the new gold standard is less important than the signal to all parties that the three routes to excellence are equally important. Every indication is that A-levels as an exclusive label are a barrier to this.

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