Mix and match later

29th March 1996 at 00:00
For someone so impeccably apolitical, Sir Ron Dearing is a superlative exponent of the political art of the possible. His review of qualifications for l6 to l9-year-olds stretches his rigid official brief at every seam, but stops short of any bonfire of the academic-vocational divide. It may alarm the A-level purists and disappoint the outright integrationists. He has listened to everyone who cared to be consulted, taken it all with a pinch of salt, and stuck to his own deeply held convictions about what the country and young people at every level of potential need. A-levels can never be more than a fraction of the answer.

The result is a report which rivals Scott on length, but beats it hands-down on readability; which amounts to far more than the sum of the leaks; and which commands sufficient consensus, credibility and commonsense to make its recommendations do-able by any Government. It will not revolutionise studies for the age-group overnight, and certainly not before a general election. Sir Ron Dearing is playing a subtler, longer game. What he has done is to put in place the necessary foundations, as well as the framework, for whatever post-l6 reforms are desired in the future.

Even leaving aside the present Government's obsessive attachment to A-levels, Sir Ron was always clear that they could not immediately be abandoned, or merged into their vocational equivalent. For a start, there was no real equivalence in size, structure or assessment style, let alone demands, durability or reputation. So a two-pronged attack had to be made on the vocational deficit.

Most urgent was the need to tackle the crisis in public confidence in the whole vocational edifice. Though employers have taken the lead in the creation of national vocational qualifications, few seem to believe in them, and outside critics deplore their lack of breadth. The general NVQ has more educational content and has been taken up too quickly for its own good in schools, but also suffers all the NVQ ills of tick-list assessment, bureaucracy and patchy credibility. Both qualifications have had their successes, but most people don't understand or believe in them in the way that they do A-levels.

Two reports on quality were urgently commissioned - Capey on GNVQs and Beaumont on NVQs - and both disappeared without much public trace into the beleaguered National Council for Vocational Qualifications. Now Sir Ron and the Education Secretary have put them firmly back on the map. Also high on the agenda is the future of the NCVQ itself, its merger with Sir Ron's School Curriculum and Assessment Authority a natural consequence of the earlier merger of education and employment departments. More to the practical point, it could also bring to the vocational teams the benefits of long SCAA experience in the construction of test-questions guaranteed to pass the Sunday Times plausibility test. The original NCVQ initiative was born of long employment department frustration at education's failure to do anything serious about vocational training, but the lack of education input has had dire consequences.

Here we come to the second prong of the attack, for a merged national qualifications body will be far better placed to create, and monitor, the sort of restructured awards that will lend themselves to mixing and matching in the future. This is not just a matter of breaking down the present unwieldy size of a GNVQ course, renaming it, or making sure that its units match up with the length of A-level or new AS equivalents, but more crucially exploring from scratch how a common core might be constructed that would allow a student to transfer between courses without losing credit.

The new research from the Gatsby Foundation has confirmed how little common ground there is at present. It is this gulf that is leading to such an unacceptably high level of drop-outs between the two streams, but coherence cannot come quickly, however high Sir Ron's priority.

Meanwhile he puts in place a framework, using a vocational vocabulary, that will map on credit where it is due at every level, and make it crystal clear on the certificate. And of course he is canny enough to offer something to everyone.

For employers vociferous about literacy and numeracy, he makes key skills an essential component in all national certificates and diplomas, balanced with a blunt warning that they must play their part in the improvement of NVQs. For the gold-standard brigade, he promises a ratcheting-up of A-levels, revamped special papers, and more chances to start university courses in the sixth form or further education college.

And perhaps closest to his own heart, he throws out motivating lifelines to alienated l4-year-olds: the chance of a college course or work-place experience; accreditation of achievement at entry level as a first step on the framework; relaunched records of achievement, together with national traineeships post-l6, are all aimed as a high priority at that one-fifth of doomed young people now entering life and work utterly lacking in education or training qualifications.

Fourteen-year-olds were not part of his brief this time, but he worried about disaffection in the age-group when he was rewriting the school curriculum and his worries have not yet been laid to rest. Apart from their own futures, he knows that the national targets are unattainable unless they can be included in the achievement tally.

So much of the post-l6 debate has been bedevilled by the false notion that quality equals exclusiveness. Sir Ron goes for inclusiveness right across the board. For those in search of coherence and clarity he has marshalled an immense amount of detail with infinite lucidity and logic. For those disappointed by the continued existence of three separate pathways, academic, vocational and applied, there is the reassurance that both crossroads and access roads are under construction and that his demanding vision of a breadth-plus-depth diploma could in the longer run be the outcome.

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