Tony Tait says the time is ripe for a new post-16 modular qualifications system.
Teachers' leaders in the state and private sector have called for radical new mix-and-match diplomas to replace the present qualifications system.
A document to be signed today by leaders of 11 unions for principals, heads, teachers and lecturers calls for single certificates to replace traditional GCSEs at 16 and A-levels or vocational certificates at 18.
It is the strongest call yet for a new modular system in which qualifications are built from credits of equal esteem from all the education and training routes available to young people.
It is more than five years since A Basis for Credit was published by the Further Education Unit, predecessor of the Further Education Development Agency. The report was the first set of proposals showing how a credit-based qualification system using units of study would benefit learners of all types and ages.
It demonstrated that credits would help people learn in a flexible way to suit their own needs using a system that recognised the achievements of all learners.
Many colleges enthusiastically endorsed and acted on proposals made in A Basis for Credit and subsequent publications. A variety of initiatives were undertaken including a three-year project, Credis, funded by the Welsh Office. It introduced units and credits across Wales and subsequently credits have become a part of the FEFC (Wales) funding methodology.
These developments were supported across the country by principals and curriculum leaders. They urged that credits were the way to widen participation and help learners through the complex qualifications system. David Robertson, professor of public policy and education at John Moores University, in Choosing to Change (1994) made the argument across the FE and HE divide.
Nevertheless, in many other powerful quarters the idea of credits was met with scepticism and sometimes hostility. There were hopes that the Dearing review of 16 to 19 qualifications would be influential. Disappointingly, Dearing's final report has little to say about credits becoming a feature of the new framework.
However, recently the climate has changed, Labour's policy statement on a 14 to 19 curriculum, Aiming Higher, proposed a credit-based qualification system and the Committee for Vice Chancellors and Principals backed a similar idea. The FE Funding Council for England argued for a credit-based qualification system to be used as the basis for funding.
Helena Kennedy's committee on widening participation called for a national credit framework to be established within five years. Sir Ron Dearing's recent review of higher education (Dearing 3) recognises the need for a credit framework which spans further and higher education.
This autumn will see consultations on the 16 to 19 qualifications framework (Dearing 2, the Kennedy report, Dearing 3, the White Paper on Lifelong Learning and a number of other policy initiatives). Credits would enhance each of these and provide powerful ways to help link them. This will be explored further at a major FEDA conference next month, at which education minister Baroness Blackstone will give a keynote address.
Above all, a policy commitment to modernise the UK's qualifications for the next century is needed. Lifelong learning and fast-tracks for high achievers must be supported. Colleges must provide a seamless pathway for all. To achieve this the Government should take five steps: * Make a commitment to a rigorous and flexible qualification system which serves individual learners, business and the wider community to foster economic competitiveness, social cohesion and equity for the people of the UK at the beginning of the new millennium.
* Announce an intention over three years to introduce a high-quality qualifications framework based on units and credits encompassing all achievement post-14. It would retain the standards, if not the names, of existing qualifications.
* Make a commitment to an overarching certificate for 16 to 19-year-olds which would be the key entry qualification for HE and full status employment.
* Direct the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, in its first year, to work with awarding bodies, funding councils, development agencies and others to agree provisional credit ratings and levels for all existing qualifications and their unit components.
* Establish a national task force to address the key issues. These include a standard unit specification, a common language for describing achievement, credit value and level. The task force would ensure these linked with HE, and develop a plan to implement them over three years.
Give us the Credit, recently published by the FEDA, shows how such developments would make the world of qualifications and achievements more intelligible and attractive.
A system of unit- and credit-based qualifications would help institutions plan, resource and develop the curriculum, make them accountable and lead to more equitable systems of funding.
Five years is a long time in FE. Commitment to credits has gathered pace and there is a growing consensus that they have a key role in the future of education and training. Are credits now an idea whose time has come?
Tony Tait is a research officer for the Further Education Development Agency