John Cassels celebrates Ron Dearing's 16-19 review, but Noel Kershaw mourns a missed opportunity
a lot of ink has been spilled recently pointing out alleged shortcomings in Sir Ron Dearing's report on qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds, and much of it has been spilled to no obvious purpose. It has been suggested that Sir Ron "lost his nerve" in not recommending an end to A-levels. Thank goodness he made no such recommendation which would have been a sure sign that he had lost his marbles It was a certain way to have his report rejected, and how would that have helped?
Besides, whatever your view of A-levels, Sir Ron was right to say that the need for stability demanded no early abolition of them. Can anyone seriously contend that general national vocational qualifications and national vocational qualifications have advanced to a state of solidarity and acceptance which would justify putting the heavy strain on them which the abolition of A-levels would impose in the next couple of years? Certainly not.
However, the burden of this article is not about A-levels and applied A-levels, which attract so much ponderous opining from weighty folk whose knowledge of them is 30 years out of date. Instead, it is that the Dearing report has opened up most unexpectedly and exhilaratingly new ways forward for those who do least well now.
To begin with, the Dearing framework extends downwards as well as upwards. Instead of having a bottom rung consisting of GCSE grades A-C, there are two lower rungs: Foundation level, which takes in GCSE at lower grades, GNVQ at Foundation level and NVQs at level 1; and Entry level, which is, to quote, "equivalent in demand to levels 3, 2 and 1 of the national curriculum".
This is more concession to bureaucratic neatness but of far greater importance than at first appears. The consequence of the present general assumption by employers and indeed by most young people is that unless you make it to five "good" GCSEs your qualifications are beyond the pale. What does that offer to the very large numbers of young people with lower GCSE grades or none at all? Precious little. Moreover, what realistic and useful goals does it mean that young people can pursue through education and training if there is no framework within which their achievements can be recognised? For the majority, none.
The report is right to say that the standing of Youth Training among young people is modest. It is also right to say that a completion rate of 46 per cent is unsatisfactory. It is right, too, to draw attention to the problem of those who have little motivation to achieve but simply enter YT in order to get financial support from the state.
The proposal that YT be relaunched as a system of National Traineeships available at Foundation, Intermediate and perhaps Advanced levels is therefore exhilarating. The possibility of progression to Modern Apprenticeships by means of a mainly work-based route opens up. These traineeships are to be properly designed by industry training organisations and training and enterprise councils and delivered in partnership with colleges of further education (who, note, have still not been acknowledged by the Government as having a contribution to make to Modern Apprenticeships).
At a stroke, as you might say, out go poorly designed YT courses leading hardly anywhere. Also - and how important this is - the worth of a course will no longer be judged by whether it leads directly to a job, but by the achievement of the trainee in terms of qualifications. That is surely a more solid basis on which to get quality of provision, and a crucial consideration for those entering at Entry level.
All of which is to say that Sir Ron has done a great service by opening up the framework of qualifications to all young people and, by implication, chiding us all for allowing it to be so easy for so many to languish outside it if they do not jump the hurdles provided in the school system by age 16. And we are talking about big numbers here: nearly 280,000 young people are involved in YT, their achievements are disappointing and 22 per cent are unemployed six months later. Many unemployed young people have not been involved in YT at all.
One might also mention that 15 to 20 per cent of young people reach adulthood with a poor grip on literacy, oracy and number (which would be tackled in the new National Traineeship).
Overall, the National Commission on Education concluded that between a quarter and a third of all young people finished compulsory education having achieved little and with little or no desire for any further education or training. The new framework will not cure that on its own. Many other things need to be done, especially in schools in run-down areas in and around cities. But, at last, there will be a framework relevant for all, and it will offer a realistic way up for all to see where at present for many there is none.
John Cassels Sir John Cassels is director of the National Commission on Education