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Things will be different this time

Sir Ron's interim report maps out how academic and vocational paths could be developed for 16 to 19-year-olds. Attempts to unify and broaden academic and vocational studies over the years have failed to take hold. But Sir Ron Dearing thinks things will be different this time because the education world is behind the move. Six school and college groups have actually proposed a framework themselves.

With almost a third of the age group doing A-levels, Sir Ron suggests that saturation point may be reached, and the need to offer other post-16 opportunities is growing.

A-levels were introduced in 1951 to replace the Higher Certificate. As more students stayed on in the 1960s, concerns grew about the narrowness of the academic curriculum and attempts were made at reform.

In the 1970s, the Schools Council recommended replacing them with Normal levels (about half the study time of an A-level) and Further levels (about three-quarters of an A-level). But, in 1979, they had failed to gain widespread support and Mrs Thatcher's incoming government announced that A-levels would not change.

In 1988, the Higginson Committee proposed a structure of five "leaner and tougher" A-levels, but this, too, was rejected.

The AS-level was introduced in 1987, worth half an A-level, but with the same depth. Sir Ron's new report urges the consideration of another AS-level with the same breadth, but less depth.

Meanwhile, most attempts to reform vocational education have been tried out. The 1977 Holland Report set up the Youth Opportunities Programme, which sought to provide training for unemployed 16 to 19-year-olds. It was followed by the Youth Training Scheme, and now by Youth Training and Modern Apprenticeship.

The Department of Education and Science countered with the Unified Vocational Education Programme, the first attempt to provide a general vocational route within post-16 education. But it did not make much headway.

National Vocational Qualifications came on board in 1987 to rationalise the system of industrial training. In 1992, they were followed by General National Vocational Qualifications, which gained credibility swiftly among candidates - 250,000 are expected to start them this September.

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