Follow Dearing who dares

May 3, 1996

Andy Green argues that proposals for 16 to 19-year-olds are too complicated to implement. Sir Ron Dearing is a master at squaring political circles. His meticulous and comprehensive review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds assimilates the views of every conceivable lobby on post-16 education and training and offers something to each.

By seeking out the consensual and gradualist middle ground he has devised a programme for reform that is both politically acceptable and will not disrupt the system beyond the tolerance of teachers and administrators already punch-drunk with changes.

However, in facing all directions at once, Dearing has paid a heavy price. The proposals are too complex and will not achieve their stated objective of providing greater coherence and transparency in the qualification system.

The main weakness lies in the centrepiece proposal for a set of overarching awards called national certificates and diplomas. These are designed to encourage and reward breadth and balance in post-16 learning and are Dearing's own version of previous proposals for a baccalaureate-style award by the Institute of Public Policy Research and the National Commission on Education.

In many ways Dearing's suggestions here, although only barely sketched out, are admirably elegant and practical. GNVQs would become Applied A levels (a double award) and both these and NVQs would be divided into unit chunks equivalent in size (both in notional learning time and credit rating) to A levels and AS levels.

A National Diploma would be achieved by students accumulating two A levels (or an equivalent GNVQ or NVQ) and a range of general or Applied AS levels, as subordinate subjects.

The overall range of major and minor subjects would have to be such that attainment was demonstrated in four subject domains and three core skill areas. The domains are sketched out as: science, technology, engineering and maths; arts and humanities; modern languages; and "the way the community works" (including business, economics and social science).

The three core skill areas are communication, numeracy and information technology. Presumably each A level, GNVQ and NVQ, and their AS level subsidiaries, would have to be assigned to a particular domain. A student might then achieve the diploma by, for instance, obtaining A levels in physics and chemistry and then AS levels in German, English and business studies. Equally a student majoring in a vocational area could combine a GNVQ in business studies and Applied AS levels based on clusters of GNVQ units covering areas such as communications, maths and French. In each case level-three standards in the three core skill areas would have to be demonstrated.

Like previous proposals this one attempts to encourage balance and breadth by stipulating minimum requirements for the number of specialist and subsidiary subjects, plus certain rules of combination. However, unlike the IPPR proposal in The British Baccalaureate, Dearing appears to favour a clear demarcation between the academic and vocational tracks while insisting on equivalence.

The report is somewhat vague on this point but it would appear that students taking GNVQs as their major would take their subsidiaries from the GNVQ units clusters, representing Applied A levels, while those taking A levels as the majors would take their subsidiaries from within the range of AS levels.

The tendency in the model is therefore towards a linear system, like those in many continental countries, rather than towards a more modular system, as in the United States and now Scotland. The model has the disadvantage of emphasising the difference be-tween tracks but the advantage of maintaining greater coherence.

The main problem with the model, however, is not necessarily that it retains lines, but that it remains voluntaristic. There is no compulsion on students studying at level three to take the National Diploma and there is no reason why anyone should do so unless gaining it offers advantages in terms of university entrance or access to good jobs. This would depend entirely on the universities and employers, who in the past have been quite content to select on the basis of individual A levels.

When the Government proposed a similar umbrella diploma in the 1991 White Paper, Education and Training for the 21st Century, the general response was that it would not work because universities and employers would continue to select on the basis of the constituent qualifications and not the overarching award. It was quietly dropped. It is unlikely it would be any different this time. The unequal status of the qualifications would remain despite Government protestations about equivalence.

There are two potential ways of solving this problem and ensuring that the National Diploma takes root. One would be to abolish the constituent qualifications so that the grouped award would be the only qualification available, thus ensuring that it was taken. This would be politically unacceptable at the present time, involving too much disruption and uncertainty, and would also be demoralising to many less able students since it would leave no intermediate qualifications for those unable to gain the whole diploma. The other way would be to attach certain guaranteed privileges to the diploma, giving students the incentive to take it.

These could take two forms. First, as is the case with baccalaureate holders in France, students gaining the diploma could be guaranteed a place somewhere in higher education. The Government would have to work with the university admissions system to find ways of placing students not accepted for their course or university of choice.

The second measure would be to limit Higher Education Funding Council for England funding to universities for first-degree students to those holding the diplomas (mature students could be exempted from this). This would both ensure that those entering higher education had the necessary qualifications to benefit from it, including the core skills essential for learning, and give a definite incentive for 16 to 19-year-olds to take the advanced diploma. Without HEFCE funding there would be few university places offered to students without diplomas.

Transforming the diploma into the required qualification for university entrance would rapidly establish it as the benchmark award and ensure that breadth and balance in the post-16 curriculum became standard. It would present a major challenge to the whole system, ratcheting up the standards of student learning. It would also require more intensive and - for some - more prolonged learning at level three than is currently the case.

Many students now take only two A levels or their GNVQ equivalent and the average amount of class learning time is only about 18 hours per week over two years. The National Diploma would be the equivalent of three-and-a-half A levels or a GNVQ plus one and a half A levels.

Many 16-year-olds would need three or even four years to attain the diploma and organised learning time would need to be increased to something like 30 hours per week - similar to bac students in France.

These reforms might incur additional costs, and they would certainly challenge both teachers' tolerance of change and our traditional liberal predilection for elective examinations. However, they may prove unavoidable.

It is unlikely that we will ever match the standards in countries like France, where 65 per cent now get the broad-based baccalaureate, without a more demanding and normative approach that mandates breadth and all-round competence as the goal for most students.

Andy Green is a senior lecturer at London University's Institute of Education.

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