Shared vision on common goals is the key issue

12th December 1997 at 00:00
It really isn't going as well under New Labour as we had hoped. And I'm not, for once, talking about funding; everyone knows that we can't deliver as well, or as much, without enough money. We just can't agree about how much enough is.

I'm more worried (almost) about what we're being asked to deliver to full-time 16 to 18-year-olds, and come to that, why. The same old unreconstructed A-levels are still on offer; new AS-levels have been deferred while the old version remains; vocational A-levels stand defiantly beside their twins, the Advanced GNVQs.

A-level mathematicians don't have to be able to communicate, linguists to use numbers, or historians to run up spreadsheets or databases.

Meanwhile, the New Model Pilot is leading the New Model Army into battle against GNVQ, armed with death by key skills.

The emphasis of the pilot is on the advanced course, which students do have to be reasonably bright to embark on, requiring several A-C grades at GCSE. All is not exactly well here, but its far worse if you look at the Foundation and Intermediate courses.

Foundation GNVQ is a level 1 programme. To it come students who have had no success at level 2, GCSE. This is often because they are not good at communicating and applying numerical skills. Sometimes they are simply not good at writing examination papers. Often, perhaps because of the other factors, they are what is called "disaffected". They haven't been happy at school but they think they'll give college a go all the same. After 11 years of compulsory schooling they have attained F or G in GCSE English and Maths. We are all very worried about them.

Don't worry, the New Model Pilot on his white horse is charging to the rescue. The students enrol in September. In January they will take their first Application of Number test.

In four months the failure of the last seven years will be swept aside. Or, of course, not. Never mind, there's another test in June - if they are still with us then. How motivated would you be to continue if you had progressed backwards from failure at level 2 to failure at level 1 a few months later? Even the Intermediate students run the risk of repeating their level 2 failure once in January and then again in June.

We don't know whether the "tests" will be an hour or an hour and a half long, but, whichever they are, students are not so daft that they can't recognise an examination by an easier name.

And they know it for what it is - the form of testing least likely to trouble them in adult and working life; and the form which they know they don't shine at. Which is why they opted for GNVQ. Oh, and another thing. Although this too hasn't yet been ratified it seems likely that they won't be able to use calculators, even for checking their results, although they have been allowed to do so in their GCSE, and can still do so in their assignments.

What about the Advanced GNVQ? Well, if students take several module and key skill tests at the same time, it looks as though they will be taking two, three or four three-hour tests and on end, without the kind of break which is written in to the more leisurely A-level timetable. And if they fail? It's two strikes and you're out, double or quits. Despite Dearing, there is no accreditation yet for half the modules (AS equivalent); so you can pass 11 modules and the assignments for the twelfth, but if you fail the test you have achieved nothing.

Back to the key skills: they will still be integrated into the assignments as they are now. So GNVQ students will be awash with the mandatory key skills before anyone has been able to work out how they can be introduced into the Advanced Level diet for all the other students. And these aren't really the key skills that employers most want employees, all employees, to have acquired at college. (Of course that doesn't mean that we aren't all keen on improving basic skills.) I am preparing a short course on Basic Skills for Market Traders myself. It will include a session on the misuse of the apostrophe, as in "Pineapple's Pounds 1 each", and another on decimalisation as in "What is wrong with the following? 'Apple's 15 bob a pound' (3 marks)."

Employers feel they can train employees to use calculators and spell-checkers, if they think it is important. They want people to be able to work with others, to take responsibility for themselves and to solve problems rather than becoming part of them.

These are also key skills, but they aren't going to be validated. Why not? Well, you can't count on the rigour if you can't set an exam on it, can you?

Why on earth do we seem to be going down a path so antipathetic to the ideas of inclusivity and widening participation?

I think the answer must be that there is a tension between the desire for sociological reform and a profound educational conservatism. Those who genuinely want everyone to have the life chances that education gives people also genuinely fail to appreciate the level of change needed if young people are to feel that they can take advantage of what we are offering.

There must be a consistent vision of what we want to achieve, for "where there is no vision the people perish". If I'm wrong, and there is a vision, please hand out the spectacles soon.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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