We are entering an extraordinarily fluid period in the evolution of national qualifications at 14-plus. For the Government, it means getting to grips with the Dearing legacy as the first step in developing a longer-term strategy.
This will not be easy. There are some changes which the new Government will want to see implemented in 1997 such as the formation of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
But a number of Dearing's proposals need to be discarded. We hope that among these is the futile task of allocating subjects to academic or vocational pathways.
If Aiming Higher, Labour's official document on the 14-19 curriculum, provides any clues, modularisation could be extended to all post-14 qualifications.
The most complex task, however, will be to reappraise a number of the promising ideas put forward by Dearing, which, because they were not thought through, have appeared impractical at the implementation stage.
This includes the one-year AS, proposals for core skills, the Dearing Advanced Diploma and the proposals for increasing the rigour and manageability of general national vocational qualifications.
Reforms at 14-plus are much needed, but must be based on a combination of educational principles and what works, and less on ideology.
Unravelling the complexities of the Dearing legacy requires a long-term vision of the future that is widely shared. The Labour party's Aiming Higher is quite impressive in these respects. Though it lacks detail and is not well known in schools and colleges, it relates closely to widely-shared views within the profession.
In a nutshell, it says that A-levels should be broadened and vocational qualifications upgraded within a single framework. Students should have academic and vocational achievement recognised through a common Advanced Diploma.
Aiming Higher also stresses the need for a strengthened work-based route. It implies a gradualist approach and sees an Advanced Diploma and a more unified qualifications system, to replace A-levels, GCSEs, GNVQs and NVQs, as emerging over a 10-year period.
In the short term, it suggests that existing qualifications could be improved through a common approach to modularisation and the reform of assessment.
Our view is that an Advanced Diploma to be achieved by 80 per cent of each cohort by the age of 18 or 19 should be at the centre of any future qualifications reform. An Advanced Diploma or a baccalaureate approach is no instant solution. However, a mandatory but flexible Advanced Diploma, launched in 2001 or 2002, could be part of a long-term strategy for a government aiming at two terms of office.
It would be mandatory in the sense that it would become the recognised award for advanced level study and the means of entry to higher education for younger learners. By giving schools and colleges time to prepare, by offering general and vocational routes within the same diploma and, at the same time, by insisting that the new diploma was compulsory for HE entry, many of the difficulties envisaged for the Dearing proposals would be overcome.
But if the new diploma is to provide a way of broadening A-levels, taught time would have to increase significantly. A diploma that was equivalent in study time to 3.5-4 A-levels - or more precisely to 21-24 A-level modules or advanced GNVQ units - would broaden study for those who now take the three-A-level programme.
It could also create sufficient space to provide both general education and vocational specialisation.
A variant of the diploma could also cover the work-based route and Modern Apprenticeships. Such a diploma would address the principal weakness of both A-levels and GNVQs: their narrowness. It could also be the basis for reversing the worrying trend away from scientific and technical subjects in both A-levels and GNVQs.
Funding will be a crucial issue. The most minimal Dearing reform agenda has been calculated to increase current costs by about 10 per cent. A diploma with increased taught hours would cost a great deal more. Avoiding the issue of funding can only lead back to a narrow curriculum and qualifications fragmentation.
The new diploma would be far more intellectually demanding of students than either A-levels or GNVQs. There would no longer be an option for the weaker students to take only two A-levels or only 12 units of an Advanced GNVQ. Increasing study hours is entirely justifiable when achievement is compared internationally. However, greater demands on students have to be supported by a more flexible and user-friendly delivery system if achievement is not to suffer.
A substantially increased proportion of students could reach advanced level at 18 or 19 by 2001 or 2002. Faster learners would be encouraged to take up university-level study while slower learners could take three years, rather than two, to reach advanced level. In both ways, standards would be enhanced while more students would reach advanced level.
A mandatory but flexible Advanced Diploma is not Dearing's voluntary Advanced Diploma. Like so many of the Dearing proposals, the diploma is worthy in aim but unlikely to be taken up in schools or colleges or to be recognised by universities.
Another fundamental weakness of the Dearing review, reflected in its terms of reference, was its restriction to 16 to 19-year-olds. We need a qualification system that begins at 14-plus and assumes at least four further years of study for the vast majority. Only by beginning with a 14-19 focus can we avoid the sheep-and-goats scenario in which vocational education at 14-plus is associated with slow learners and the disaffected.
The Advanced Diploma concept, in the first instance, is principally concerned with younger learners. But it will need to have sufficient internal flexibility to articulate with the needs of adults as well as being a basis for encouraging 14 to 19-year-olds, whatever attainment level they reach, to continue learning throughout their lives. Establishing a credit-based approach across all existing qualifications seems to be an obvious starting point.
Ken Spours and Michael Young are researchers at the Post-16 Education Centre, London University Institute of Education.