One hand tied behind his bac

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Nicholas Pyke looks at the difficult path Ron Dearing had to tread.

Ron Dearing has been hamstrung from the start of this review. Under no circumstances, said the Government, was he to abolish or otherwise devalue the A-level. Nor was he to introduce a baccalaureate.

This is one reason why a number of important punches have been pulled. Throughout his mammoth opus, Sir Ron gestures towards root-and-branch reform, while actually sticking close to the status quo. Major decisions are left as options, which consultation and the "market" are expected to sort out.

The Government's own line is complex enough with Education Secretary Gillian Shephard apparently at odds with the Prime Minister and his absolutist defence of the A-level "gold standard". Mrs Shephard is thought to favour a much greater mixing of the academic and vocational, in line with her former Permanent Secretary Sir Geoffrey Holland.

Worse still for Sir Ron, such divisions are replicated right across the educational forum. He has had to accommodate the fact that major constituencies, what the Americans call "key players", from university admissions tutors through to the mass of small employers back very different strategies for tackling a common aim.

No wonder, then, that his single, straightforward qualifications structure is presented in such a lengthy and inconclusive way.

He has, for example, brought the three "pathways" to qualification (A-levels, general national vocational qualifications and NVQs) closer together. Yet at the same time he refuses to merge them, leaving all that potential for continued confusion.

And while the logical conclusion of his drive for comparable standards and common material is that students should mix and match academic and vocational courses, no such conclusion appears in the report. "I am more cautious about that than many," he told The TES this week. The furthest he goes is a suggestion that mixing the two may be appropriate in some professionally-orientated subjects - medicine and engineering for example.

Higher education is a good illustration of his problem. The new universities - formerly polytechnics - are already much involved with a range of non-traditional qualifications, including Access courses and GNVQs, and are happy to see the approach extended. The same broadly runs for the Universities and Colleges Admissions System.

But while the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals also backs a progressive line, there is, as Sir Ron said this week, no way of guaranteeing that individual admissions tutors share their view. There is every possibility that traditional establishments will retain their suspicion of GNVQs until overwhelming proof is produced of their suitability.

The influence of the A-level aficionados cannot be under-estimated. Not only did they set the ground rules, but they appear to have affected Sir Ron's thinking in the course of his review. At one point, for example, he was proposing a single over-arching diploma, an idea which, possibly looking too much like a baccalaureate, was watered down to one of two or three parallel options. This was after representations from right-wingers and - for technical reasons - some influential headteachers.

The educational Right will be happy with Sir Ron's calls for tougher standards in arts A-levels, stricter external assessment in GNVQs plus more basic, or as he calls them "key", skills in arithmetic and spoken English all round.

But Sir Ron must also cater for the "outcomes" lobby. This is headed by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, ably supported by the Confederation of British Industry. The NCVQ has been in favour of tick-sheet testing of students' "competences" through practical demonstration, particularly in the workplace - an idea derided by many academics. Without the employers, of course, no training system makes any sense. It is not perhaps surprising that Sir Ron's report politely leaves reform of the NVQ - he suggests greater breadth - in their hands.

The CBI is influential, but represents major firms many of which already have good training schemes. Sir Ron particularly needs to reach small and medium-sized employers who are likely to belong to the Institute of Directors. Alongside the CBI's drive for trendy competence testing then, he has to take account of the IoD's demand for selective schooling and ultra-traditional A-levels. They should "return to their former gold standard" said the IoD this week, even though most of their employees will not have A-levels.

And how does this square with the view of the headteachers' associations in the Joint Associations Curriculum Group who this week criticised Dearing for failing to create a single pathway to qualifications.

Dearing's answer is three types of certificate systems. First, the current system. Second, the National Certificate, rewarding the sort of achievement envisaged by the Employment Department in its National Targets. And third, the National Diploma, a proto-baccalaureate, rewarding a set number of passes, but specifying the subject areas to be covered. He refuses to state his own preference, leaving it to "the market", or possibly a general election, to sort out.

Dearing's most unequivocal backer is the Labour party, which he took particular care to consult. Labour produced similar proposals of their own only last week. And while, in giving something to everyone Dearing may have sacrificed clarity, he has at the same time smuggled into place a platform for the sort of genuinely root-and-branch reform that a future administration may favour. A baccalaureate, for example.

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