Caroline Mager analyses college responses to the Government's consultation on the reform of post-16 qualifications
Ministers have failed to give the radical lead needed to reshape post-16 qualifications, a study of colleges' responses to the Government's latest round of consultations reveals.
Analysis of initial college responses by the Further Education Development Agency shows much disappointment over what is on offer in the consultation document "Qualifying for Success".
Education and employment minister Baroness Blackstone has urged the FE sector to "make your case" in the consultation. This offers a promising glimmer of light for lifelong learning. But colleges again find themselves on familiar and yet discouraging territory in debating whether qualifications are for 16 to 19-year-olds only or for lifelong learners.
They face a consultation that assumes 16 to 19-year-olds come in a sealed box. In underpinning the manifesto commitment to broader A-levels and upgraded vocational qualifications, "Qualifying for Success" fails to acknowledge that young people sit alongside full-time and part-time adults in the colleges.
The majority of these are not A-levels, GNVQs or NVQs. But the dominant concern in the consultation is the suitability of these qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds. Most are on courses outside the framework: other vocational programmes such as BTEC, access to FE and return-to-study courses.
The idea of lifelong learning challenges assumptions about the purpose of accreditation and qualifications. For lifelong learners they must provide a way of recognising all worthwhile achievement, rather than supporting the selection and rationing process at 16 to 19. The consultation document does not appear to acknowledge the implications of this shift - or its potential benefits for 16-19s.
Moreover, there is an apparent lack of co-ordination between this consultation and the work currently under way on producing a White Paper on lifelong learning. The consultation on 16-plus qualifications will still be in progress when the White Paper is published in the New Year and will arguably pre-empt the results of the consultations.
Another concern of colleges is that the consultation paper lacks clear vision of where the Government wishes to lead them. It sets out eight uncontroversial and familiar aims for qualifications. But they do not depart radically from the previous government's proposals nor indicate clear priorities.
In addition, the colleges say, there is friction between the aims that are stated in the consultation document.
Trade-offs may need to be made between "wider access to lifelong learning" and "high and consistent standards".
If the Government continues to think that external assessment is the only reliable means of ensuring consistent standards, we will continue to value only things that can be assessed that way and not what is really important.
There is a very strong consensus in colleges about the design of qualifications needed to widen participation, improve retention and raise achievement.
The sector has worked for several years on these goals which at last appear to be in line with Government objectives. To achieve these objectives, qualifications must be achievable in units, giving credit for small but well defined, chunks of achievement. This would help students progress and meet their career aspirations.
What colleges want is credits which lead to overarching certificates, associate degrees or to existing qualifications.
The "Qualifying for Success" consultation is a prime opportunity for the Government to prove that its commitment to lifelong learning is sufficiently strong to look differently at how to shape qualifications.
Caroline Mager is a research officer for the Further Education Development Agency
24-page special pull-out on post-16 qualifications