New paths in strange landscapes
Although the Government is clear about the broad aims of the 14-19 Working Group, announced this week, Mike Tomlinson is prepared as chairman to consider some radical ways of achieving them.
Mapping new pathways through education and training could open up a new landscape, with some of the more familiar landmarks washed away. Even the form of A-levels could be up for consideration.
In 18 months' time, Mr Tomlinson's working group should be recommending changes to the national qualifications framework that will recognise the achievements of all young people and drive a clear road to further and higher education and training.
Vocational routes must be strengthened and assessment made more manageable and fit for its purpose.
The working group is drawn from people with experience of education and training in schools, colleges, higher education and industry. Its remit is to consider qualifications up to the equivalent of A-level, apart from occupational ones currently assessed to industry standards.
The Government favours an over-arching qualification at age 18-19. Making this the standard end-of-phase qualification could encourage young people to stay in education and training instead of dropping out at 16.
It should include an element of general education as well as the students'
own choices, but no decisions have been reached on the balance between choice and compulsion. The Government finds the International Baccalaureate interesting, but acknowledges that it is not suitable for all abilities. An English Bac could be considered.
"At present we leave achieving breadth to an unstructured approach based on encouragement rather than requirement," said Mr Tomlinson. "A baccalaureate could offer structured breadth, but it will be a big issue. Why should a student who is volunteering to stay in education study things they do not particularly want? We have got to tackle that."
A baccalaureate could also encourage institutions to offer a wider range of activities, he added, by including achievements that are accredited but not examined, such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award. Key Skills will also have to be considered - but should they be extra to the students' main subjects or integrated into them?
Even the A-level could look very different. "Whether A and AS remain is neutral," said Mr Tomlinson. "A Bac could have them, or not. We must not lower the standards associated with A-level, but we may call it something different."
Courses could also be broken down into smaller, separately accredited units. "We will look at a unitised system, though we may not need that.
It's all up for grabs."
With students, teachers and the exam system at breaking point, assessment could be facing a radical shake-up. "We will look at the burden of testing," said Mr Tomlinson, "but we have got to be careful of simplistic responses. Moving the burden to internal assessment only moves the burden.
We have got to look quite fundamentally and then reduce it. We will need to do a lot of on-the-ground testing, with the people at the sharp end."
But the change will prove worthwhile only if it offers young people clear progression to higher education and a career, and has the respect of industry and the universities. Vocationally oriented qualifications will not be accepted just because the government says so.
"You do not bestow parity of esteem," said Mr Tomlinson. "You have got to have qualifications that are valued for what they represent in skills and knowledge, and the opportunities they subsequently provide. This has to be earned in that people value that qualification for what it tells them about the young people, and employers can see an easy route for building on it."