A route round qualifications roadblock

August 31, 2007

Commit to the potential of the 14-19 diplomas and drive up participation, Steve Smith says

The publication of GCSE and A-level results has been marked by the usual headlines decrying the standard of the qualifications and casting doubt on the achievements of our school students and teachers.

Surely the time has come for us to move beyond this sterile debate and accept the need for a secondary qualification system that provides the necessary stretch to demonstrate the quality of school-leavers at the highest level of achievement but also broadens the horizons of even the most disaffected pupils.

The 1994 Group has welcomed the Government's continued commitment to increasing funding to enable us to widen participation, but there is a growing feeling that money alone cannot solve this problem. What more can be done to drive up participation and achievement?

The root cause of the sector's difficulty in achieving its target lies not with the universities but with the school system. The Higher Education Policy Institute study Demand for Higher Education to 2020 and Beyond , concludes that differential school achievement determined differential university participation. "Social class is not the issue here," it says. "The disparity of entry to higher education simply reflects differences in school achievement."

Indeed, the Government has taken significant steps to reform the 14-19 curriculum without most of the higher education community noticing. The centrepiece is the launch of the 14-19 diplomas. Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, has placed the new qualifications at the heart of the Government's strategy.

It is forecast that in September 2008, 38,000 school students will enrol on one of the first five diploma lines - and a good proportion will be looking to gain entry to higher education in 2010. Clearly, the diplomas seem to offer a route around the continuing A-level debate.

How prepared are universities for this potential revolution in the curriculum? The answer is variable. The level of involvement of higher education in early stage development of the diplomas was less than desirable. Continued delays in the publication of the detailed content of the new qualifications have made it impossible for institutions to determine the likely quality of entrants. Similarly, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has not yet determined the value of the associated tariff.

Without this information it is difficult, if not impossible, for higher education institutions to answer questions from the school sector on the acceptability of diploma graduates. And without a clear answer, the potential for schools and colleges to persuade pupils of the highest quality to take this new qualification could be seriously undermined.

Nevertheless, at their heart the diplomas offer the potential to become a radical alternative to the existing curriculum. In recognition of this potential and as part of our commitment to the student experience the 1994 Group is engaged in a joint project with the Department for Children, Schools and Families to assess the effect of the reforms on our member institutions. The aim is to ensure that students with the new diploma qualifications would be welcomed onto degree courses at the best universities.

The group's work on 14-19 reform reflects our member institutions' strong belief in the role that universities play within the wider community. Our members are among the major employers in their communities and along with their large student populations provide the lifeblood upon which their communities can prosper.

Alongside the economic contribution is a recognition of the universities' social responsibility. The 1994 Group institutions are not ivory towers and many contain some of the country's most distinguished teacher education departments.

A university has a duty to engage with its local community. It is in this role of partner and adviser that it can make an important contribution. Our member institutions, drawing on their world-class research, teaching methods and knowledge of business interaction, can support schools and colleges to improve standards and raise achievement rates.

Crucially, universities' public role with schools and colleges can alter perceptions. If students view the transition to higher education as a natural progression rather than an alien concept, large strides towards achieving widening-participation targets might be made.

It is clear from our research that there is a long way to go to make higher education aware of the potential of the diplomas. We must not let that potential slip through our frustrated fingers. We must move on from a never ending fruitless debate over the standard of the A level and seize the opportunity to undertake a radical overhaul of the qualification system for the good of all.

Steve Smith is vice-chancellor of Exeter University and chair of the 1994 Group of internationally renowned research-intensive universities.

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