The time for talking will soon be over, consultations and seminars completed, and Sir Ron will be getting down to writing the report on hisreview of the 16 to 19 qualifications framework. The Secretary of State certainly did not give him a free hand - A-levels were to be maintained and general national vocational qualifications built on - but "the need to increase participation and achievement . . . and minimise wastage" provides scope for Sir Ron to give impetus to a significant step forward.
Demands for such development and reform have gone on throughout the 30 years and more I have spent in teaching and on several occasions chances have been missed. Never have circumstances been more appropriate for a clear statement of 16 to 19 education policy and the formulation of a programme for action than today. Without such action developments will continue but in a haphazard way. For some students this may cause no great harm but others will remain disenfranchised or unstimulated by what is on offer.
While the increased participation rate post-16 has been encouraging, it is little short of a national disgrace that a substantial number of young people finish their education or training by the age of 16; that many others are forced down routes which prove inappropriate to their needs and that, perhaps in consequence, far too many drop out of courses with no qualifications to show for their efforts.
There are able students who are well-served by a three-subject A-level courses particularly if they attend schools or colleges with a stimulating range of complementary courses or activities and who are developing the basic skills they will need in later life. Other students may by 16 have a reasonable idea of the career path they wish to follow and will be happy with the general national vocational qualifications or the even more specific training offered by the NVQ. In my experience a much larger number want to choose subjects for study which keep open as wide a range of career opportunities as possible. If these young people are to face the prospect of a working life in which several career changes are likely then it becomes essential to avoid premature specialisation.
Sir Ron must take the advice of those who want study across a broader range of subjects opened up with careful monitoring to check that essential skills are being developed. Not all subjects need be studied to the same level. Students who are clear about their specialisation on grounds of need, ability or enjoyment would take relevant subjects on to A-level or GNVQ. They could complement these with subjects taken at AS or by simply completing fewer modules of the A-level course. It would be for schools to encourage students to recognise the benefits of including core subjects - mathematics, science, languages - within their programmes of study. Some would want this enshrined in a full baccalaureate system but support for this is by no means universal.
Persuasion is preferred to compulsion. Indeed the essence of the advice to the Secretary of State must be to allow as much flexibility in the structure of qualifications as is compatible with coherence and rigour. Rigid patterns will not encourage participation or reduce wastage though all courses must becapable of stretching abilities and developing skills. For those with the greatest academic ability there must be courses which make even greater demands than A-level.
University departments must play their part in identifying work, normally covered in the first year of a degree, which could stretch able students in the sixth form. If universities put on remedial courses in some subjects to enable less-able students to cope with degree work then more advanced, even second year, courses must be available for those who are ready for them. This practice is well established in America and Scotland. Many of the difficulties in persuading students to try for S-level or take extension modules would be removed if the universities would give credit for this work. Whether we encourage able students to do work in greater depth or take on a programme of study which broadens their subject range should depend on the aspirations and inclinations of the individual student. The one approach is not inherently more virtuous than the other.
At least there now seems to be general recognition of the need to reform AS-level so that it represents a horizontal slice of A-level, equivalent to the first year's work. This will do something to meet the needs of the many young people for whom a full two-year A-level course is too demanding and for whom a GNVQ represents a commitment to a vocational area which they are not ready to make. Convincing arguments for a course intermediate in standard between GCSE and A-level have been set out elsewhere. It would benefit not only those lacking in the maturity and commitment necessary for A-level success but also those wanting greater breadth in their studies. Two A-levels (or GNVQ) plus three AS-levels would be an attractive programme for those who could cope with the load.
The report must not be too grudging in its support for modular courses. They are already standard for GNVQ and have proved their worth in some A and AS-level subjects. Sir Ron may have been influenced by those who say that modular courses are easier than linear courses, but both are what you make them. One reason why students do better on modular courses is because they provide more motivation and stimulation. It may be easier to be examined in six small units spread over regular periods but this is also a good way of encouraging students to work steadily throughout the course rather than having a blitz at the end. The modular approach will bring about the flexibility which is essential if all students are to be provided with the programme of study which suits them as individuals. It also make it easier for smaller sixth forms to provide the necessary range of courses, for example, the same first-year sixth module might be taught to A, AS and even some GNVQ students. Such co-teaching is good value for money and even brings some educational benefits. For these and many other reasons it would be a mistake to hinder the development of modular schemes through artificial restrictions.
What advice can be given about core skills? There is no doubt that Sir Ron's former colleagues in the business world believe that they should be high on the agenda. This advice deserves to rank alongside that of higher education in its influence on 16-19 education but apart from preparing students for the world of employment there must be awareness of broader needs and expectations. Few would argue against students continuing to improve their skill of communication and numeracy, and many would want other general skills in information technology, foreign language and organisation of learning to be properly developed. Most students should have reached the required standard in these areas by the time they complete key stage 4 of the national curriculum. Some will need more time and should continue with a suitable programme beyond 16. Should we be satisfied with a basic minimum skill level for all students or should the required level be related to the student's ability?
One of the key features of a strategy designed to bring the best out of students should be the opportunity to work for a nationally recognised and respected certificate which would reward those who had accumulated sufficient credits through A, AS or GNVQ coursesmodules, demonstrating both breadth and depth and a sufficient level of core skills. While it would require much research and negotiation, involving higher education, awarding bodies and the secondary sector, there would be much to be gained from attaching a tariff to the courses or modules considered acceptable for the national certificate. The accumulation of sufficient points would determine whether a student had qualified or even the level of the pass. Universities could use this tariff in deciding how to allocate places. This would not preclude them from offering places to those who had achieved excellence on more specialised courses.
If students are to be encouraged to work to the highest standards of which they are capable then the demands of courses at advanced level must not be watered down. National targets may be worthy but not if they are achieved by subterfuge. There must be safeguards against grade inflation and there must be careful research before concluding that all GNVQ modules are of the same standard as A-level, however worthy that objective. There would be benefits if it were possible to combine units of GNVQ and A-level. With horizontal AS for the intermediate group and extension modules for the most able we should be much nearer a "national educational system which provides a structured progression from a broad and largely common curriculum to something more differentiated which takes account of the interests and aptitudes of young adults" as demanded by the Headmasters' Conference in their Education 14 to 19 statement.
If Sir Ron achieves all this he could become Saint Ron.
Vivian Anthony was headmaster of Colfe's School from 1976 to 1990 and is now secretary of the Headmasters' Conference.He is writing in a personal capacity