Platform: Rotten core could kill

14th August 1998 at 01:00
The pile of paper now on my desk weighs six kilos. It relates purely to the key skills which are a compulsory part of new "improved" General National Vocational Qualifications; and it is also on the desks of all those coordinators and moderators involved in the current pilot being run by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

During their short life, GNVQs have been heavily criticised by many observers, myself included; but the new version addresses many of our concerns. It is all the more regrettable, therefore, that it comes shackled to unworkable demands for key skills - Sir Ron Dearing's new name for the core skills devised by the now defunct National Council for Vocational Qualifications. This is a fiasco-in-waiting that could sink the whole qualification.

For practical purposes, key skills means units in communication, application of number and information technology. Students must meet a list of "performance criteria"; for example, to take part in a discussion and "contribute in a way that suits the situation"; or "collect appropriate data, to appropriate levels of accuracy."

Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, has recently attacked key skills for their "pedagogic nonsense" in implying that free-floating skills can be taught "in a knowledge vacuum." Certainly, statements like these only make any sense within a concrete, pre-existing context. The QCA's guidance duly argues that key skills "emphasise the 'application' of skills"; and help students "learn, select and apply skills in ways that are appropriate to the context." The reality falls its usual distance short of the rhetoric.

In old-style GNVQs, key skills are demonstrate d and assessed entirely within vocational coursework. The NCVQ argued that a completely integrated approach would increase student motivation and achievement, and that clear criteria would "result in reliable and valid assessment." Instead, report after report documented teachers' confusion about how to deliver corekey skills. No-one understood what standards were required. Tick lists proliferated; no-one was willing to fail a student on any key skill, and students correspondingly failed to take them seriously.

The new pilot recognises, quite explicitly, that the old approach was not working; but instead of tackling the incoherence of the whole concept, it simply adds new and equally incoherent activities to the old.

Because ministers are demanding "a high standard of rigorously assessed provision" for key skills, we now have three layers of assessment. Teachers must still assess key skills within coursework but the pilot adds three externally set assignments taken under examination conditions and a number test. Key skills therefore move from the most lightly to the most heavily assessed part of the GNVQ, and from the cheapest to a hugely expensive part of the examining process.

To pass, students will need considerable preparation time. But there is no off-setting reduction in the "vocational" components of a GNVQ; the average number of hours given to GNVQ programmes has been falling, not rising; and a good number of schools are pulling specialist English and maths teachers out of GNVQs because of cost pressures.

Does the QCA really believe in its own model? One half suspects not, because it simply cannot go national. Take the IT assignments. Exam conditions mean all GNVQ foundation candidates in the country will sit them simultaneously; so will all intermediate and all advanced candidates .

One morning 100, 000 intermediate students will each need a PC and "adequate printer access to ensure that queue delays do not interfere with the completion of their work," and, on another, so will 100,000 advanced candidates. Has QCA understood that some colleges have over 300 students in each group? or what current IT provision actually is?

Key skills are still touted as encouraging "a holistic approach to learning and assessment". But the new reality is wholesale decontextualisation, reaching its apogee in the calculator-free multiple-choice number test. Reflecting our current national panic with regard to arithmetical calculation, most questions involve basic number operations at speed. Students will need time within a shrinking timetable to drill and practice - presumably while lip-service is paid to maintaining teaching and learning across the syllabus. Yet nothing whatever will be added to their mathematics education; for the whole key skills syllabus, right up to advanced (level 3), covers less than half the syllabus for the middle-tier algebra-free GCSE in mathematics.

What this ill-conceived pilot makes clear is the muddled nature of the whole key skills idea. If it is about applying existing skills, then this assessment regime is a nonsense. If it is about raising young people's levels of written English, mathematics, or software use, then we need a proper debate on what this age-group should be learning, not a list of criteria requiring students to "enter, edit and save information, so that it is accurate and ready for processing" or to "select and read appropriate materials for a purpose. "

The short term solution is clear enough: namely to uncouple key skills from the GNVQ, and allow the latter to develop as a coherent qualification.In the longer term, we might finally, like the rest of the world, think seriously about post-compulsory general education.

Alison Wolf is professor of education and executive director of the International Centre for Research on Assessment at the University of London's Institute of Education

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