A level playing field?

March 29, 1996

Sir Ron Dearing proposed a new framework of national awards this week. Alison Utley spells out the implications for higher education. Sir Ron Dearing proposed a new framework of national awards this week, in an attempt to do away with the imbalance between academic and vocational qualifications.

In his Review of Qualifications for 16-19 Year Olds Sir Ron has sought to correct the imbalance by "recognising explicitly" the equivalence of academic and vocational routes, rather than through any wholesale reshaping of Britain's qualifications jungle.

Stressing the need for stability Sir Ron's proposed new national framework is based on the present pattern of qualifications, although the advanced GNVQ is renamed applied A level.

When Sir Ron was invited to advise the Government "on ways to strengthen, consolidate and improve the framework for 16-19 qualifications", last April, he was asked to both maintain the rigour of A levels and build on developments in General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) and National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs).

* The proposed framework of national awards (see table).

Sir Ron's broad proposal is to bring the present academic, applied and vocational pathways in to a common framework covering all achievements and allowing for flexibility and movement between the pathways. "A common framework would help people to understand where qualifications stand in relation to each other," says the review. The four levels he proposes are advanced; intermediate; foundation; and entry.

* A levels: although Sir Ron has steered away from radical reform of A levels, they do not escape unscathed. "The historic pre-eminence of A levels has led to their expansion beyond the purposes for which they were created," says the review. It continues: "The further expansion would most probably serve to increase the already too high proportion of disappointed students who find the A level approach is not right for them."

Acknowledging concerns about the standards in maths and some science subjects, the review is clear that there should be no levelling down in A-level standards. Rather the demands of any subject below the average should be raised.

* GNVQs: Sir Ron not only wants to rename the advanced GNVQ an Applied A level, but also shrink it and bring its modular structure more in line with A levels. The Applied A level would involve six units of study and three NCVQ units, the Applied A level (double award) would involve gaining 12 units.

* Reformed AS level: a reformulated AS is proposed to give added breadth to post-16 study carrying half the numerical score given to the full A level in the proposed new UCAS tariff. This Advanced Subsidiary would be equivalent to half a full A level course. Sir Ron also proposes an Applied AS, involving three units of study.

* National Advanced Diploma: Sir Ron has proposed a national diploma at advanced level, the heart of which would be two full A levels, or a full advanced GNVQ, or a full NVQ at level 3, or agreed equivalents. Its purpose would be "to recognise achievement in studies both in depth and in breadth".

* Degrees: pupils should be able to take units of university courses while at school or college. This would give them credit towards undergraduate studies. "It may not be unrealistic to contemplate a first degree being completed in two years," says the review.

* Key skills: Sir Ron identifies three "key skills" that all young people should possess. These are "competence in communication, the application of number and information technology". He proposes an AS in key skills as well as NCVQ units in the three areas. "Universities and employers should be urged to make a particular point of making clear to candidates that acquisition of the new AS in key skills (or the NCVQ equivalent) will bear on their recruitment decisions," the review says.

* Changes in regulatory and awarding bodies: to further strengthen the conviction that vocational and academic qualifications be given equal weight, the review recommends that the awarding bodies should come together to create joint arrangements for awarding the GCSE, A level and GNVQ. And action should be taken by Government departments to rationalise the number of bodies awarding qualifications. Legislation should be introduced to combine the work of the NCVQ and School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Employers are to be consulted on this proposal.

PROPOSED FRAMEWORK OF AWARDS

National Award: Advanced Level

AS and A Level GNVQ Advanced Level NVQ Level 3

National Award: Intermediate Level

GCSE GNVQ NVQ Grades Intermediate Level 2 A/C Level

National Award: Foundation Level

GCSE GNVQ NVQ Grades Foundation Level 1 D/G Level National Award: Entry Level

Common to all pathways: Three grades A/B/C

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