On Sir Ron's reading list...

29th March 1996 at 00:00
EDUCATION AND TRAINING 14-19: CHAOS OR COHERENCE. Rob Halsall and Mike Cockett. David Fulton, Pounds 13.99.

A good way of passing the time while waiting for Government decisions on Sir Ron Dearing's Review of 16 to 19 qualifications would be reading this book.

One hopes that Sir Ron has been exposed to some of its thinking, though if last week's leaked version (promising the retention of A-levels and a freeze on numbers sitting them) turns out to be accurate, he can't have paid it much attention.

The book is both timely and valuable as a review of some of the initiatives which have been tried in recent years and as a contribution to the thinking which should be informing future policies.

The contributors argue that Britain has not come to terms with the "post-Fordist" industrial world, and whilst it is not alone in struggling to find ways to make its systems of education and training more relevant to individuals, the economy and the national interest, it may be more reluctant to recognise the root of its problems.

The three-track qualification system is seen as no more likely to solve our difficulties than the similarly separatist secondary system introduced by the 1944 Act. In a country long accustomed to seeing educational success largely in terms of academic examination passes, the lofty aspirations to parity of esteem and equality are at best flawed. Politicians and legislation will go on providing schemes for other people's kids, and refuse to challenge the assumptions about the supposed excellence of what is in equal need of reform.

The book seeks to be critically constructive about recent and present efforts. It notes the consensus that has emerged about the urgency of our problems, and welcomes the improvements in some aspects of performance.

The underlying theme, however, is about the threats to the likely success of change that is not founded in a coherent vision of the future and which does not involve all of the partners and stakeholders.

Denis Gleeson welcomes the emergence of further education and training as an integral part of mass education, and points to the increasing number of young people who are taking advantage of the broadening post-16 curriculum framework.

But he questions whether the market can deliver the scale of change that is necessary. He argues for education policy and practice which is driven by an unqualified belief in the equal importance of all young people's education.

Mike Cockett's chapter on 14-16 vocational courses is excellent on past efforts to provide for low attainers. Chapters on NVQs, records of achievement, core skills, student-centred learning and the challenges to higher education make equally well-argued points about their place in a coherent structure. We lose our nerve, having introduced sensible changes and fail to gain the benefits of them. We introduce GCSE, to surmount the problems of O-level, and then we use it in exactly the same way, so that only A-C grades are "real" passes.

We reject coursework, because too many young people succeed as a result of it. We look for parity of esteem for vocational qualifications, yet preserve all of the cultural associations of status that surround A-levels.

We really ought to stop. It's not just half out future anymore: it's all our futures.

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