Scrutiny on the bounty

1st June 2001 at 01:00
Post-16 education has reached a new world of plenty. Phil Revell cuts through some of the historical undergrowth

Who'd be 16? Today's school leavers step into a largely uncharted territory that is still bedding in after the Government's intensive drive to cultivate it. Every area of provision from A-levels down to pre-vocational qualifications has seen at least some change. But the jury is still out on whether the brave new land will be a better place for its hopeful young settlers.

Curriculum 2000 was the result of the Dearing Report into post-16 education. Dearing criticised the fact that an A-level student in England typically had 15 to 18 hours of taught time a week, compared with up to 30 hours in France or Germany.

Moreover, ministers were keen for English students to experience the kind of broad diet offered by the French baccalaureate, with its mixture of arts and sciences. The answer was a revamped AS-level in which students take four or five subjects in their first sixth-form year before dropping back to two or three in the second.

With the reforms came changes to the work-related curriculum. Modern Apprenticeships, introduced by the Conservatives in 1995, would be expanded and made into two stages. A foundation stage would offer a level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification to young people of average ability who wanted to follow a vocational route. Advanced Modern Apprenticeships (AMAs) would be level 3, equivalent to A levels.

Everyone following the post-16 route would cover Key Skills in problem solving, working with numbers, communication, improving own learning, IT, and working with others. Key Skills have been high on employers' want lists for some time, and Dearing was convinced that young people should spend more time on qualifications that would increase their "employability".

The reforms were finally implemented in September 2000, four years after Dearing. Problems began before the launch. Some National Training Organisations objected to the Key Skills proposals and sought exemption for their employer groups. "These skills should be taught in schools," says Caroline Horrigan, of the tourism training organisation. "We are happy with developing softer skills such as working with others, which can be developed in the workplace. But if this is about remedial work, employers are not interested."

As the academic year progressed, other anxieties emerged. Stories began to appear in the press about overworked sixth formers unable to cope with their four or five AS-levels. The first results from the new vocational A-levels were disastrous, with a 90 per cent failure rate. Early results from a Nuffield-funded research study by Dr Ken Spours at London University's Institute of Education were also deeply negative. Despite the expectation that 17-year-olds would study a mixture of arts and sciences, the research found that pupil choice appeared to follow traditional patterns, with students choosing subjects that reflected their strengths.

Key Skills generated trenchant criticism, with evidence that students were completely turned off the new courses and that schools and colleges were finding the qualification difficult to deliver. "Key Skills is in deep trouble," Dr Spours says. "The kids don't like it and teachers think the delivery and assessment is too complicated."

Colleges in the FE sector were experiencing similar problems. One of the last reports prepared by the Further Education Funding Council - before it was wound up under the Learning and Skills Act - said the lack of motivation among students was a common problem: "Some students are repeating what they have done at school and become demotivated as a result. Some appear to be unclear about the purpose of Key Skills. A number of students are questioning the relevance to ther future career aims."

Even the employers who demanded the skills programmes in the first place were critical. "Employers don't like releasing their young people for training and exams," said Hugh Pitman, chairman of the Association of Learning Providers. "There's a risk of a Key Skills industry developing where the qualification takes on a life of its own."

Many are uncertain whether government has made the right choices. "We still don't have a real vocational route," says Hilary Steedman at the London School of Economics. "Other European countries have a clear route. Germany, Sweden, Denmark France - they get 80 to 90 per cent of their young people to level 3; we're nowhere near that."

She would like to see real vocational qualifications, NVQs, offered in colleges as well as in the workplace. "College-based occupational training can be made good," she says. "It places the young people firmly in an educational environment."

She argues that most employers are simply not set up to deliver occupational training on site. "We expect employers to do the impossible." NVQs should be more flexible, she says, sharing the views of many that work-based qualifications, including Key Skills, are "over specified".

At the Institute of Education, Professor Alison Wolf is another critic. She feels it is unrealistic to expect apprenticeships for every work sector. "They've been over-ambitious about this," she argues. "Not all occupations are suitable." Professor Wolf is also puzzled about the requirement for a large employer contribution to the funding. "Why should employers have to pay for post-16 courses," she says. "No one else does."

That's a view that Margaret Murray, education officer at the Confederation of British Industry, would presumably endorse. But she is less keen on the college-based delivery of work-related learning. In fact, she argues, we need to re-think the term "work-related". "It's anomalous," she says. "Some education is work related, some isn't. We need to move beyond slogans. There's a big difference between learning on the job and vocational training."

Ms Murray uses the example of hairdressing to make the point: "The reality of the Friday night shift is very different from the college-based GNVQ." She is also more upbeat about Key Skills. "We've pressed for these to be included for many years," she says. "And where there has been good leadership from the National Training Organisation, Key Skills are being successfully integrated into on-the-job training. The root of the success is good planning."

Much of the winter's furore over Key Skills and Curriculum 2000 can be attributed to poor preparation and over-ambitious implementation. Failure rates in the new vocational A-levels are almost certainly down to misunderstandings about the modular nature of the new qualifications. Some colleges have implemented the new programmes without fuss.

But there is no doubt that the new curriculum has got off to a controversial start. Much of the blame can be laid at the door of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which has maintained a discreet silence during the election period. "It is too early to comment on how the new qualifications will fare," the QCA said. "Until exams are taken and results published, we wouldn't be in a position to comment."

Unfortunately, that puts schools, colleges and training providers in a conundrum. If this winter's problems can simply be attributed to teething troubles, then eventually all will be well. If there are real problems with the post-16 diet, however, those young people who experience failure may step off the qualifications ladder altogether. The overwhelming view from industry and education is that the QCA's "Lets wait and see" approach hardly seems adequate.

Phil Revell

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