More choice, more work, but no cash

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Dearing's cautious approach may be right. Scotland's post-16 reform plan, Higher Still, is struggling to get off the ground reports Neil Munro, while in New Zealand Sarah Catherall discovers teachers have been overwhelmed by rapid change.

Amid the general warmth greeting Sir Ron Dearing's epic review of 16 to 19 education, there have been a few disturbingly cool patches. Sir Ron, some feel, has ducked the main issue by keeping distinct academic and vocational qualifications very much alive and separate. No real reform is possible until all students are on the same route to qualification, say the critics, who include several influential groups of headteachers and college principals.

However, despite its undoubted appeal, reform of a radical and rapid nature has many pitfalls, as recent experience in New Zealand seems to indicate. On the basis of this comparison at least, Sir Ron's tediously mandarin, steady-as-she goes approach is looking good.

Plans to untangle the maze of academic and vocational qualifications and pull them into a single framework were first proposed by the New Zealand government back in 1990. But six years later, secondary schools attempting to implement these changes are still complaining of high workloads, poor resourcing and lack of national planning and consultation.

Indeed the whole wobbly process of streamlining the qualifications looks likely to topple. New Zealand teachers have voted to impose a "frameworks freeze" from next month. And a group of headteachers concerned about the shift away from exams to competences-based assessment (called standards-based in New Zealand) is calling for a delay and an independent review.

New Zealand's framework arose from a familiar desire to break down the divide between academic and vocational learning and include students in an education system that had traditionally failed them.

However, what the government thought would be a two-year job has taken five years so far, and the completion date has recently been put forward again, to 1998. New Zealand's framework goes much further than that proposed by Sir Ron in England as it involves a complete overhaul of qualifications from senior secondary school through to death. And the whole thing is to be assessed with internally marked standards-based schemes - in Britain characterised as "tick sheet assessment".

In 1990 a New Zealand Qualifications Authority was created with the task of building an eight-level framework for national qualifications, connecting education in the senior secondary school to workplace training and tertiary study. Conventional school subjects and examinations, trade training and certificates, and tertiary qualifications are being pulled into one "seamless education system".

New Zealand wants students to move freely between one institution and another, including workplace training, with their national certificate or national diploma clenched firmly in their hand. And more than 40 industry training organisations are developing qualifications which are being registered on the framework and can be started at senior secondary school - a national certificate in manufacturing, for example.

Recognition of prior learning, cross crediting between institutions - such things may sound good, but the practicalities are controversial.

National standards bodies representing schools, industries and tertiary providers have been charged with turning subject assessment into 10,000 standards (competences) that will be combined to form national qualifications.

As in Britain, where the approach is used for vocational qualifications, there is great concern that this is creating an expensive layer of bureaucracy.

As this country moves to reduce the dominance of the academic A-level, John Taylor, headteacher of Kings College, Aukland, is concerned that New Zealand's focus is shifting too far away from external exams to internal assessment.

Mr Taylor, who is leading the call for a review of the reforms, said that standards-based assessment at secondary school level will be "disastrous". He wants different assessment methods where the standards-based approach is inappropriate - studying Shakespeare, for example. "We have to consider our economic and employment needs. But we must be careful about moving too far down the vocational direction," he said. "Training of the mind will equip people best for a job anywhere."

Secondary teachers generally support the reforms as they believe the changes will make education more accessible and put students on meaningful career paths. However a recent survey showed that two out of three teachers believed the reforms were proceeding too rapidly and were under-resourced.

Andrew Kear, curriculum advisor for the Post Primary Teachers Association, said the transition from one system to another was particularly demanding. The union is pushing for a substantial pay rise to cope with the extra workload imposed by the reforms. Almost half of New Zealand's 428 secondary and rural area schools are trialling the new qualifications and accreditation method this year.

The PPTA claims the government has failed to properly consult the profession. Mr Kear warns that Britain's own attempt at reform will be in danger of crumbling if the Government fails to take teachers with it.

Consultation has never been a problem for Sir Ron: in Britain the question is whether he has listened to so many different people that nothing gets done.

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