Sir Ron's recipe for reform comes without beef

12th April 1996 at 01:00
So, after more leaks than Yorkshire Water, the report is out. Sir Ron Dearing, following months of assiduous listening, has spoken. The chorus of approval has been almost without discord. But the Dearing report may yet have to endure a similar bout of revisionism.

Huge expectations had been raised that Sir Ron by applying common sense and cool balance would show us the way out of the morass of our 16-19 qualifications. The truth is, of course, that logic and reason have never been enough to overcome the prejudice and self-interest which have distorted the debate for so long.

The alacrity with which the Government accepted the report illustrated an obvious wish to get things settled before the next election. It also showed their eagerness to embrace professional advice, something which got them into so much trouble over BSE.

It is worth recalling quite how many things are wrong with our 16-19 arrangements. They are divisive and discriminating, they offer different curriculum and qualification routes and regimes. It is difficult, bordering on impossible, to meet the needs of an individual who wishes to combine academic and vocational learning. Free market forces have produced a serious over-supply of qualifications. A high failure rate appears to be a consequence of assessment in A-levels which builds in inevitable failure for some, student disenchantment and their inability to switch easily to another course.

How many of these defects has Sir Ron managed to put right? He has left the three pathways - academic, pre-vocational and vocational - largely untouched. That has to be a disappointment, not mitigated by his two ideas to bring them more closely together.

He recommends changing the name of general national vocational qualification advanced level to applied A-level. For some time now the Government has been saying that GNVQs are safe. If a name change gives people confidence, the Government could do themselves a favour by calling beef something else.

His second proposal is to provide a new wrapper for achievement at this level, a national certificate or diploma. But the wrapper is see-through and universities and employers may look straight at the content - A-levels or applied A-levels, and select as they have always done. So the division and the discrimination will continue.

The only effective way to ensure that people can assemble their own learning plan from the range is to require the bits to be compatible and built to the same scale. As things stand, A-levels are in effect very large single modules which simply don't fit with anything else. Sir Ron suggests some elements of A-levels and applied A-levels could be taught together, for example in the first term. Hardly a breakthrough proposal.

Proliferating awarding bodies were an easy target, and Sir Ron has not missed. Bringing together the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications is not just one less quango but an opportunity to entwine academic and vocational threads. The new body could eliminate a lot of the expensive duplication within the examination industry.

What else is there? Inviting restless 14-year-olds to come to college for practical work will be to revisit the recent past when link courses were common. Colleges did not do them very well, and schools withdrew from the arrangements very smartly when local management of schools made them responsible for the costs. Sir Ron's faith in the healing and inspirational powers of vocational education is touching. Some colleges have done rather better by putting a spanner rather than a pen into young hands, and provided we get more than the misfits and the delinquents we should be able to motivate them to stay beyond 16. The wheel turns full circle, and is then reinvented.

Much of what is proposed is a blood-relation of the ideas formulated by Sir Claus Moser's National Commission on Education. The Commission surveyed all stages of the education process, and its proposals made no reference to age-norms. The Commission was very clear that adults must be able to move in and out of the system as its means enabled them, so as to secure the qualifications which they missed earlier in life. Not enough references are made to adults in Dearing to dispel the thought that their needs have been overlooked.

Sir Ron has done some long-overdue tidying up, some sensible pruning and some rather optimistic relabelling. He has not taken a spade to the roots. No doubt he was not only not issued with one, but forbidden to resort to it. Since there is nothing in the report which could not have been envisioned by Department for Education and Employment civil servants, the Government, in giving him his orders, must have wanted his proposals to have an air of independence, of an original approach to familiar issues. The result is, however, a disappointment. It is not the best that could be imagined, but it may well be the most that could be achieved.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College.

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