More to life than results

29th December 2000 at 00:00
The proposed new certificate to recognise the achievements of 16 to 19-year-olds must include a range of experiences that go beyond just the academic, argues Geoff Lucas.

The New Year, 2001, marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the affair. Ever since 1991, policy-makers and ministers have been flirting with the idea of a diploma or overarching certificate to recognise young people's achievement by age 16 or 19.

This, more than most, is an area where evolution not revolution has been the watchword. At this rate it could well be 2111 before a full-blown system of overarching certificates is in operation. So why is it all taking so long?

Back in March 1996, Lord Dearing, the curriculum guru, tried to address the enduring problem of the lack of breadth in post-16 studies and qualifications, at the request of the previous Tory government. Two types of overarching certification were proposed: a low volume National Certificate (linked to National Targets) and a more demanding Advanced Diploma (in the baccalaureate tradition). Both, however, were highly prescriptive while remaining voluntary - a fatal combination. Moreover, the question of what value each added, over and above its component parts, was never fully resolved.

The latest version of an overarching certificate attempts to address this shortcoming. Inspired by the high-school diploma taken in the United States, the "graduation" certificate, which emerged from the Government's social exclusion unit last July, would require national qualifications at level 2, including key skills, plus wider achievements.

In the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority consultation that followed almost 90 per cent of organisations and individuals thought the grad-uation certificate was a valuable new idea or at least something worth thinking about further. Most supported certification at both levels 2 and 3.

Probably the most significant consultation finding was the response that the main purpose of such a certificate was to "recognise wider achievements", beyond formal qualifications. It is this aspect which sets the latest generation of overarching certificates apart from the mid-90s models. National recognition of young people's personal and community achievements in a range of contexts (creative, artistic, sporting, entrepreneurial, voluntary and so on) would add real value to a profile otherwise dominated by qualifications.

With the introduction of Curriculum 2000 from this September this issue takes on a new urgency. As one independent-school head recently putit, what distinguishes the lower from the upper sixth this year is "empty Common Room syndrome".

This comes at a time when there is mounting evidence of the extent to which the increase in part-time paid employment among young people is affecting their post-16 studies, a phenomenon which affects state and independent-school students alike.

The same is true of the increased pressures of Curriculum 2000 on young people. In both independent and state sectors, there is growing disquiet that enrichment programmes and complementary studies will be squeezed out by the relentless pressure of reforms to achieve more and more qualifications. A large survey of independent schools by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and the Girls' Schools Association earlier this year highlighted these concerns. Discussions among HMC heads throughout the UK this autumn confirmed that such fears are well founded.

So, would an overarching certificate help restore a sense of balance? Recent statements by Michael Barber, head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit, that its future agenda will embrace what is now being called "education with character" (ie the development of well-rounded individuals who can do more than just read, write and use ICT) give grounds for cautious optimism.

A properly worked out system of certificates which value, support and promote wider achievements, beyond qualifications, must have an important place in any national system of educational and training which to be both inclusive and humane.

We live in an era of what Professor Alison Wolf, of the London University Institute of Education, has called "credentialling" - the obsessive pursuit of qualifications. The dilemma for schools is that things which do not have some sort of national certification and currency will be further marginalised.

Yet to gain the currency and credibility that the National Record of Achievement never achieved, some sort of national criteria and quality standards will be needed. It is essential that these are not too prescriptive or bureaucratic. If they are, we are in danger of adding to, rather than solving, current difficulties. The QCA's advice on a graduation certificate went to ministers in July and it is understood that they have recently requesting further work. This could lead to the development of possible certificates and, if all goes well, piloting from September 2002. A slow burner, maybe, but still alight.

Geoff Lucas is secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference

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