Susan Young talks to Sir Ron Dearing, now entrusted with sorting out post-compulsory education. Sir Ron Dearing has already got the Government out of one major political hole by quietly and efficiently reforming the national curriculum, more or less to everyone's satisfaction.
But his reputation as a clear-sighted fixer who may or may not walk on water in his spare time could be sorely tested by his latest commission: to come up with a solution to the mess that is post-16 education and training without offending raw sensibilities.
It is a measure of Education Secretary Gillian Shephard's trust in the chairman of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority that she would risk asking him to take on a project where there are few short-term gains and enormous likelihood of offending both the political left and right.
Recent history is already littered with failed suggestions for reform, and on this occasion the remit includes maintaining the rigour of A-levels, building on the two vocational qualifications routes, increasing participation and achievement in education and training while cutting wastage, preparing young people for work and university - and getting maximum value for money.
It seems Sir Ron's desire for a big project in his remaining time at SCAA and his personal interest in the 16-19 area has coincided with Mrs Shephard's desire to tackle the problems of post-compulsory education. Although his year-long timescale may mean Mrs Shephard has changed posts by the time the final report emerges, it would still be a positive achievement for her, with the added advantage, according to cynics, of putting vouchers on ice during that period.
Although the remit from Mrs Shephard and her colleagues at Employment and the Welsh Office have indicated the A-level exam should remain, it stresses only that its rigour should be maintained, thus giving Sir Ron a certain amount of leeway without alarming the Right.
He is mindful of the fact that the 1988 Higginson report on A-level reform was politically slaughtered the day after it came out and is anxious, this time, to build more of a consensus as he goes. "I have a strong view that I must have a strong commitment to research in the first part of the remit to identify the issues. Let's find out what the problems are before we develop a policy, " he said.
Accordingly, he has already begun commissioning research. "The first thing I want to look into is the drop-out rate among those who embark on A-levels and GNVQs. What is the cost to the nation? Why is it happening? What happens to these people and how can we best serve them?" It was important to find out if they had been advised to make a wrong choice, were having financial problems or had just been offered a job, he said.
It was also important to look into ways of recognising the achievements students had made, even if they did not complete courses, and Sir Ron also wanted to know how part-time students were faring.
The informal consultation group, led by Sir Ron with the aid of Michael Heron of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, will also be looking at other countries with interest - particularly at existing arrangements in Scotland and Germany. Industry will be asked its views, as will representatives of higher and further education. The possibilities of information technology will be investigated.
The buzzword of the review so far is coherence. Sir Ron says: "I'm looking at it because the Secretary of State asked me to, and because I want to anyway. We must look into mobility before it's too late for GNVQ and A-levels. Some subject areas have clear possibilities. We don't want a single track on which every single person must go. Working backwards to 14-16 it was about providing more opportunities to respond to particular talents rather than corral them on the same courses."
All this takes Sir Ron up to late June or early July, when after five regional consultative conferences for teachers and extensive discussion with his group - which will include representatives from further and higher education, the NCVQ, employers, Wales and the Office for Standards in Education - he will publish an initial report on the problems to be tackled. Beyond this, he becomes much cagier about where solutions might be found, particularly in the minefield of A-levels. "They've done a good job for a lot of people for a long time, " he says, before adding that he would like to see more scope for breadth without losing rigour.
AS-levels have, he says, been "rather disappointing" but he wonders if there is some scope for developing a "horizontal" as well as "vertical" version. There is also the question of core skills. "The Secretary of State hasn't said they should apply to A-levels but raises the possibility of extending them more broadly than to GNVQs."
Although he stresses that his thinking is at a very early stage, it seems likely that he would like the A-level system to extend at each end of the ability range, with something like a broadened AS qualification which more students could achieve, which could lead into A-levels of unchanged or greater rigour.
What he has in mind appears to be a change of mechanism rather than principle.
He is reluctant to be drawn on modular A-levels, but some breaking down of units of achievement is vital for his stated aims. "In the context of helping students to maintain some flexibility and rewarding commitment I am interested in looking at scope for students aiming at the same area of work on the GNVQ or A-level routes being able to move across whichever route they choose in the same cohort."
Art and business studies are two courses he believes might lend themselves to this sort of flexibility. There might also be a possibility of NVQ students being able to move across into more academic courses, as in Germany.
Sir Ron sees the review as an obvious task, after tackling both HE and the 5-16 curriculum, but he is under no illusions that it will be an easy year. "With the national curriculum the basic structure was OK but it had gone wrong in the implementation. This is much broader because it is the bridge between compulsory education, FE, HE and work. There aren't any uniquely right answers but arguments on both sides... that's why I want to start with careful research and discussion of what the issues are. I don't want to start with any answers which would be absolute. I hope I'm going to be lucky."