Exam-sitting targets

March 17, 1995

Andy Green argues for more coherence in the national qualifications jigsaw. Further education has been a long time coming of age. For a century or more, the local "tech" was the backbone of British vocational education and training. In the absence of a coherent national system, the colleges, along with the apprenticeship system, provided the majority of initial and continuing training and the "second-chance education" for those who had failed to qualify at school.

In the late 1960s and 1970s the techs transformed themselves into colleges of further education, providing a wide range of A levels, new vocational and pre-vocational courses (BTEC and CPVE), and a wealth of basic skills and access programmes for adult returners and the new cohort of school-leavers unable to find jobs.

Unlike school sixth-forms, the colleges were the responsive institutions, ready to innovate and in close contact with employers and local communities.

Governments, however, took little interest in them and, like the media and the public generally, knew little about them. There was no national policy for the post-16 sector, as the Organisation of Economic Co-operation Development inspectors found to their amazement when they came to investigate educational planning at the behest of the Department of Education and Science in 1974.

The Manpower Services Commission tried ambitiously, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to fill the policy vacuum in the late 1970s; the Macfarlane report, with its promising proposals for integrating the sector, appeared on the heels of the 1979 election and was sidelined by new agendas.

It was not until the mid-1980s that the Government began to take serious note of what was happening in colleges, worried about the uncontrolled proliferation of courses and qualifications, and escalating costs.

By this time there was some cause for concern, although not all the problems could be blamed on the colleges themselves. Unsupported by clear Government strategies for the local education authority administered sector, but not truly managed, and forced to respond to a rapid and increasingly ad hoc array of new Government initiatives, colleges had grown in a chaotic and disorganised fashion. There was much creativity, but also poor marketing and inefficiencies in the use of physical and staff resources.

Expansion without strategic leadership had turned some colleges into sprawling and somewhat shambolic institutions. Parcelled up into departments, which were often run as miniature fiefdoms, the institutions often had little unity of purpose, collective ethos or effective organisation.

As such they mirrored both the strengths (diversity and innovation) and the weaknesses (fragmentation and incoherence) of the post-16 sector as a whole.

The Government's decision to give more autonomy to colleges - first through local management of colleges (in 1988 Education Act), then through incorporation (1992 Higher and Further Education Act) - was designed to improve efficiency. It also placed FE, for the first time, at the centre of the strategy for achieving higher levels of skill and qualifications.

The objectives, according to the white paper, Education and Training for the 21st Century, were to raise levels of participation and achievement; to create a more integrated FE sector; and to force colleges to be more dynamic and efficient. This meant removing colleges from l.e.a administration and planning and placing them in a competitive market situation. Their survival would depend on their efficiency in recruiting the students and achieving the outcomes on which their central funding depended.

Two years on we can see some of the effects of the new regime. Colleges are certainly more efficient and more entrepreneurial than before. Improvements in buildings, course provision and marketing have helped them take advantage of the swelling demand for post-16 education and they have grown at a faster rate than school sixth-forms.

Concern for student progression and achievement, partly driven by the funding mechanism, has stimulated course innovation (modularisation, and the swift take-up of general national vocation qualifications) and new forms of learner support to students, including centralised admissions; improved guidance and performance monitoring; and new flexible and open learning systems. Other successes include the Furrther Education Funding Council's inspection system, which has received widespread support.

Some of this would have happened anyway - like the former polytechnics, colleges were expanding and reducing unit costs well before the changes - but incorporation and the 6 per cent expansion targets have certainly steeled them to further efforts.

However, the gains of incorporation have come at a cost. In addition to the long-running and damaging dispute between college management and the lecturing staff, and the revelations about financial mismanagement and impropriety in a (small) number of colleges, there are serious worries about the effects of financial pressures on the quality of provision. Government requires efficiency gains of 5 per cent each year in colleges. This at the same time as they increase enrolments, deal with the burgeoning administrative demands of the FEFC, and implement major new reforms, like GNVQs, which require substantial investments in staff training and support.

Inevitably, resources are being stretched very thin. FEFC inspectors report that class contact for students on some GNVQ courses has been reduced to below ten hours per week. They also find that many colleges have not invested sufficiently in core skills provision and quality assurance systems for assessment. Without better staff training and quality control, standards may be forced down by the pressures of outcome-related funding.

The system is also still highly fragmented. While incorporation and central funding have given the sector greater prominence and a clearer identity, it has not yet solved the problems of structural incoherence.

The post-16 sector is split between l.e.a and funding agency for Schools-funded sixth-forms, FEFC-funded colleges and TEC-funded training. Oversight of qualifications is divided between Schools Curriculum Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, answering separately to the Department for Education and the Employment Derpartment.

These institutional and administrative partitions continue to reinforce the division between academic and vocational learning that has historically blighted our system. Now, the intense market competition between schools, colleges and higher education adds new centrifugal forces, encouraging poaching and "predatory trading" and undermining important institutional collaboration. Much of non-vocational adult education has already been obliterated by these pressures; others areas such as special needs and expensive specialist vocational courses are vulnerable.

FE faces an exciting but uncertain future. Government now expects much from its colleges but resources are squeezed. The most formidable challenge for colleges will be to succeed, despite the constraints, in the major role that they have been assigned in raising levels of skills qualification among young people and adults.

The National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets has said that it wishes to raise the proportion of 21-year-olds with level three qualifications (A levels, level three GNVQs and NVQs) to between 60 and 70 per cent by the year 2000.

To keep up with the international competition we should be aiming at the upper end of this range, since Japan and Germany have already reached it and France and several Pacific Rim countries are already close to it.

Given that only 39 per cent currently qualify at this level this an extremely ambitious target. Colleges have been playing a major part in raising qualification levels, but without further reforms it is unlikely that these targets can be met.

My recent research with Pat Ainley for NACETT suggests that the rate of increase in staying on at 16 is unlikely to improve. Full-time participation at 16 in England has been rising by over 2.5 per cent per annum over the past few years, reaching 72.7 per cent in 1993/94.

This has been fuelled by the shortage of jobs, the rising aspirations and confidence of the generation of young people who have benefited from GCSEs, and by improvements in the supply and marketing of courses.

However, this trend is reaching its limits. To go any further we must reach those young people who have been most resistant to staying on in education and this will be difficult.

There are other potentially constraining factors. Labour market revival may lure unqualified young people back into early employment; disillusionment may spread where investment in extended training does not lead to the expected returns in employment and HE opportunities; if the economy fails to generate increased demand for skills and qualifications, as many economists fear, the incentives for skills acquisition will diminish.

The message here for colleges is clear: if participation at 16 is beginning to peak, then recruit more adults and ensure better rates of progression and qualification among the 16-year-olds you have got already.

Yet drop-out and assessment failure remain a major problem in post-16 education. OFSTED calculated that in 1992/3 between 30 and 40 per cent of all those embarking on academic and vocational courses post-16 failed to qualify. Progression rates between level two and level three courses have never topped 50 per cent. The evidence from the first two years of GNVQs suggest that this situation may be getting worse not better.

Last year, according to the NCVQ, fewer than 40 per cent of GNVQ Advanced students had successfully completed the qualification within the normal two years (a considerably poorer record than with the BTEC National Diplomas which they are replacing).

College and school inspectors also reported last year that fewer than a third of GNVQ Intermediate students were doing work at merit level. This augurs badly for level two to level three progression since students without merit grades at intermediate do not have very high chances of succeeding at advanced.

There are four major causes of drop-out and examination failure: financial hardship; students lacking basic and core skills; inflexible curriculum frameworks which prevent students taking suitable subject combinations at appropriate speeds; and inappropriate course choice.

The last is particularly worrying. According to recent research by Alison Wolf and the Further Education Unit, confirmed by our own interviews, at least half of all GNVQ advanced students have been accepted with less than the recommended four higher-grade GCSEs, while many intermediate courses operate an open-door policy. Most tutors endorse the recommended course entry standards, and advise students accordingly, but many students ignore their advice and insist on going on to courses for which they are not ready. Tutors fear losing them to other institutions and accept them.

Our modelling of student flows for NACETT suggested that a Foundation-Three target of 65 per cent could be reached by the year 2000 on the basis of the current trend in participation increases at 16. But only if rates of course completion, progression and qualification success are significantly improved.

On current trends, and assuming more rigorous adhesion to recommended courses entry standards, next year we could see some 40 per cent of 16-year-olds embarking on A-level courses, 12 per cent on GNVQ Advanced, 20 per cent on GNVQ Intermediate and 6 per cent on GNVQ Foundation.

In addition to this some 17 per cent may be doing NVQs at some point before they are 21, either at work or elsewhere. With successful completion on A level and GNVQ Advanced courses raised to 80 per cent, and with progression via GNVQ Intermediate and NVQs to level three qualification raised to 60 per cent, we could achieve 65 per cent qualification of 21-year-olds at level three by the year 2000. These improvements, however, are unlikely to be achieved without further reforms.

The interviews in schools and colleges suggested that there are four key areas where action must be taken to improve completion and progression.

First, guidance, tutorial support and performance monitoring must be improved to ensure that students go on to appropriate courses and progress at their maximum potential.

Second, core skills provision needs to be enhanced for many students. This would mean systematic pre-course diagnostic testing; more demanding core skills specifications for NVQs and GNVQs; the provision of intensive, well-supervised additional support classes for those who need them; and increased FEFC financial support for this.

Third, student drop-out through financial pressures must be alleviated through the development of a national system of discretionary awards or low interest loans to college students.

Lastly, we must continue to develop a more flexible and unified post-16 curriculum and qualification framework so that students are able to take the combinations of courses that best suit their needs and at a pace that is appropriate for them. This would mean harmonising the different forms of standard specification, assessment and learning styles associated with the three existing post-16 pathways .

It would also means providing for the extended three and four year progression routes which many students will have to follow to reach level 3 qualification. Colleges can only achieve their goals if the post-16 sector as a whole is made more structurally coherent. This not only means sorting out the institutional and administrative divisions in the sector; it also requires creating a more integrated and coherent national qualification structure.

Andy Green is a senior lecturer in vocational education at the Institute of Education, London.

Progression and the Targets in Post-16 Education and Training by Andy Green and Patrick Ainley, is available from The Post-16 Education Centre, London University Institute of Education.

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