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We must not botch the job

The 14-19 reforms give us a historic chance to raise the status of vocational skills and create a broader, less restrictive curriculum, says David Hargreaves.

FAR too many young people drop out between the ages of 16 and 19. We cannot afford this waste of talent and, at long last, something is going to be done about it.

Education Secretary Estelle Morris recognises that progress cannot be made by minor reforms to 16-19 provision while leaving 14-16 untouched. The task is to re-think 14-19 as a whole, but without disturbing either the key stage 3 strategy or Curriculum 2000.

The reform must be radical, but not destabilising. Three broad, flexible 14-19 pathways are planned: a traditional general pathway, an enhanced vocational pathway and a new "mixed" route. At the heart of the proposals is the determination to create a more coherent vocational option from 14. The mixed pathway needs to be attractive to all abilities. We must not let vocational options become the last resort for the disaffected and low-achievers.

Key stage 4 has been a mess since 1988, when Kenneth Baker packed in far too much. Ron Dearing provided space for more choice and the new Green Paper, 14-19: extending opportunities, raising standards, suggests reducing the core still further. No tears will be shed at the disappearance of disapplication procedures (the process by which pupils are allowed to drop certain national curriculum subjects), and this may help to build support for a smaller core, without which it will be impossible to integrate vocational options. Squabbling over which subjects should be in the core will be a distraction.

It is sensible to retain the GCSE, for vocational GCSEs are just getting going. The proposal to remove the vocational label and develop a hybrid GCSE, combining the academic and vocational, is timely. Without this the "mixed" pathway will not emerge. The Green Paper invites suggestions on how GCSE could evolve. My hope is that GCSE will become more modular with a stronger element of teacher assessment, which could be achieved without damaging standards.

Whatever emerges as the way forward, it must be planned and implemented with care. Thankfully, the lessons of Curriculum 2000 have not been lost on ministers. So A-levels are largely left alone as Curriculum 2000 beds down.

I am delighted by the idea of harder questions in the A2 papers that could lead to an A grade "with distinction". This allows the highest achievers to be recognised while ensuring that the standards of the other grades are maintained. The idea of an overarching award or diploma at the end of the 14-19 phase has been under discussion since Ron Dearing's 1996 review of 16-19. The Green Paper tentatively proposes designs to achieve the necessary breadth and depth, as well as win more formal recognition for students' wider activities, including extra-curricular and citizenship activities. Such a diploma will be a key issue in consultation. The experience with "records of achievement" proves that good intentions don't guarantee success. Either we should admit the practical difficulties and drop the idea, or agree on its purpose and design and then ensure that it is attractive to students and potential users.

Higher education will be the hardest to win over. Admissions tutors in universities often ignored the new key skills qualifications and so damaged them in their infancy. This is not a mistake to be repeated.

Much of what happens in 14-19 policy in schools and colleges is also driven by performance measures, which are within the control of ministers. I welcome their recognition that removing disincentives and creating more positive incentives for a new 14-19 phase demands a fresh look at targets. Performance measures that give adequate recognition to a wider range of vocational qualifications will be essential to successful change.

The programme for 14-19 is ambitious. It will require schools, colleges, training providers and employers to work together to offer appropriate provision and progression for every learner. Labour's first White Paper put standards before structures. This Green Paper puts students before systems. It will not be easy to retain the value of institutional competition whilst harnessing the benefits to individual students from the new forms of collaboration without which the 14-19 plan will fail.

This is a true Green Paper, an honest consultation at a time when teachers are deeply cynical about such matters. It is a characteristic of Estelle Morris that she listens before she decides. A consultation lasting for almost four months gives everyone a chance to debate the ideas being offered and to respond with clear support or better ideas. This is our one opportunity to get 14-19 right - we must not botch it.

David Hargreaves was until recently chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and is now a part-time adviser to Education Secretary Estelle Morris on 14-19 education

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