Stirred but not shaken

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Sir Ron Dearing's recent report on qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds is neither a revolution nor an earthquake. Indeed in time it will probably rate quite low on the educational Richter scale, which is both good and bad. On the positive side it has taken a pragmatic and careful step down a difficult road and protected us from the full horrors of Mad Baccalaureate Disease. The negatives are borne of over-caution and a lack of understanding of the implications of some of the detail.

Hopefully the three pathways to qualifications have been preserved for now with the emphasis on the continuance of general national vocational qualifications whatever they may be called. It is only a strong central strand - a much better word with its implications of possible interweaving - which can hold together Sir Ron's framework. Other constructive points relate to the rescue of Youth Training, underpinning of the importance of core skills, and support for the Capey and Beaumont reports which studied quality in vocational qualifications. Also positive are the more rational approach to AS-level, development of a common terminology for A-level and GNVQ, and a new Entry level to help low achievers progress.

All this would have been more welcome, however, if it had been more challenging. For instance, the concept of increasing breadth post-16 is undercut by the report's silence on the watering down of breadth at key stage 4 - a classic example of stop-go policy. Similarly in the structural proposals the connection is never made between the emphasis on unit-based assessment in GNVQs and the use of a three-unit building block in AS-level and elsewhere. One more heave would have given us a properly integrated curriculum instead of the coitus interruptus now on offer.

Brinkmanship is also shown in relation to modularity, the undoubted popularity of which is recognised but treated with too much suspicion. Modularity increases coverage and motivates students and it would have been better to develop those qualities positively than to fall back on insulting suggestions that modules are flawed because re-sit possibilities might make them easier to obtain.

The sharper the focus the more apparent the difficulties - not helped by problems of vocabulary such as creating new jargon in "key skills", not following through with "National Traineeships" and by continuing to use "academic" with all its unhelpful baggage. From the point of view of FE there are frustrations, chiefly the emphasis on A-level, ranging from concern about its difficulty to the suggestion of an Advanced Diploma which is so strongly based on it. This approach, whether intended or not, makes attempts to sell GNVQ as a genuine alternative difficult.

Suggestions that FE takes the strain of disaffected school pupils is also unhelpful. Colleges have spent many years devising link schemes based on pupil interest rather than a kind of last chance saloon. We catered for these youngsters in an increasingly relevant and caring fashion but have had the plug pulled on most such schemes by a combination of lack of funding and unhelpful competition. Without new money these developments will not occur and even with it there is a danger of colleges being seen as "sin bins".

Unanswered questions vital to FE are the relationship between National Traineeships and Modern Apprenticeships and the cut-off point between Entry and Foundation levels. The former problem centres on whether advanced NVQs are a target for youth training or not while the latter is based on misunderstandings between basic skills in communications and number and the ability to apply them demanded by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. Without clear answers it will be difficult to progress either initiative.

The new AS-levels, while much more useful as part of a framework, may worry colleges. Without an unequivocal ruling that they are to be taken after one year of study some schools are certain to entice some pupils into a two-year version of the horizontal AS. The value added for the individual will be minimal but the seductive nature of the offer and the gentle experience it promises could be a serious competitive threat. One can only hope that a funding regime for schools may prevent it.

This leads me to the practical realities surrounding even the more hopeful suggestions in Dearing so far as colleges are concerned. Two things can prevent us from taking full advantage of any increased flexibility. Externally there will have to be changes to the FEFC funding methodology to allow credit for units of courses. Here the change at the top of the council may help by bringing a review of funding. Such a review, coinciding as it does with Dearing, may also influence the internal barriers to student programme flexibility, namely the current fashion for dividing the work of colleges on the basis of powerful cost centres with the increased difficulty this can give for offering programmes which cross these artificial boundaries.

This may seem like carping. Unfortunately, however, the lack of a long-term vision in the review means that instead of a blueprint for progress we seem to have been given a pile of building bricks of variable quality. It is an opportunity which has not quite been grasped.

Noel Kershaw was formerly principal of Yeovil College and is an honorary research fellow at Exeter University.

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