Key points: green paper response
- Priority on maintaining stability and efficiency in A-level qualifications system. Implement Tomlinson recommendations to prevent repeat of last year's problems
- New "hybrid" academic/applied GCSEs to be introduced
- Modern apprenticeships to be improved and expanded
- All students to learn about work and enterprise
- Term "vocational" to be dropped from GCSE and A-level titles
- Development of advanced extension awards at A level instead of A grade with distinction
- Foreign language and design and technology no longer compulsory to free up curriculum
- New partnerships between schools, colleges, universities and employers to create new study opportunities for young people
- A new unified qualifications framework to be developed, featuring baccalaureate-style awards at foundation, intermediate and advanced levels, and based on the recommendations of working group chaired by Mike Tomlinson
Higher education must have a major say in the development of the government's plans to reform 14-19 education and training or the proposals will not succeed, ministers and school and college heads agreed this week.
Representatives of universities and HE colleges will have a crucial role to play in a working group to be chaired by former Ofsted chief inspector Mike Tomlinson, who is charged with designing a unified qualifications framework featuring baccalaureate-style qualifications at three levels.
The group, which is expected to report by the end of the calendar year, will have to consider how a home-grown baccalaureate could cater for the needs of students with a wide range of abilities and aspirations and for the expectations of HE and employers.
The baccalaureate proposals appear among the government's longer-term plans for 14-19 reform, contained in its response to consultation on last February's green paper. Ministers are not expecting such changes to be introduced until towards the end of the next Parliament, so that students currently in secondary schooling will not be affected.
Shorter-term changes that aim to bring parity of esteem between academic and vocational study include: the introduction of "hybrid" GCSEs to allow students to study on academic or applied tracks; improved and expanded modern apprenticeships; the scrapping of the word "vocational" from GCSE and A-level qualifications; a requirement for all young people to experience some "work-related learning", and efforts to forge closer partnerships between schools, colleges, universities and employers, so that students can be taught in a range of institutions and environments.
Schools standards minister David Miliband told a conference in London on Tuesday that the 14-19 proposals should provide students with a "critical springboard into HE and employment".
He told a press briefing before the conference that it was crucial that the plans, particularly those to create a baccalaureate at foundation, intermediate and advanced levels, had currency with HE institutions and employers.
He said: "They are the consumers of the product after young people. That is the ultimate test that we will apply to the recommendations."
College and school heads agreed. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The work of the task group will be crucial. For the first time ever, we will get employers and universities around the same table. It doesn't matter what you do, you will not get parity of esteem unless you get them signed up to the reforms. It is too easy otherwise for them to hijack the agenda and manipulate it to their advantage."
Mr Miliband said the reforms were designed to address two weaknesses in the current system: the failure to provide adequate vocational education through links between schools, colleges and the world of work; and an academic tradition that has provided too narrow an education.
A survey of systems in other countries found that a baccalaureate qualifications framework satisfied many of the conditions needed to bring about change, including good routes into HE and employment. However, the Tomlinson group will be expected to develop proposals for a home-grown version of the baccalaureate that is flexible enough to meet the needs of all students, as well as stretching the most able.
The government's response paper says the green paper's proposals for a starred A grade at A level to distinguish high-flyers have been dropped as take-up for the advanced extension award (AEA) has been better than expected.
"We wish to give the new AEAs the chance to build on their promising start and establish a clear position in the qualifications framework by motivating the most able and helping universities to distinguish very high levels of attainment," it says.
University admissions officers indicated they would accept this and could be persuaded to cooperate with a baccalaureate system.
Cath Orange, chair of the admissions practitioners group of the Academic Registrars Council, said the starred A grade idea was a "red herring" as far as most institutions were concerned as its use would be very limited.
The government would have to be clear about the way it intended a baccalaureate qualification to be used if it was to work, she added.
"If it is to determine learning outcomes, that is one thing," she said. "But if it is to determine entry to HE, that is another. It would still need to have sufficiently recognisable outcomes and levels for us to be able to make decisions about applicants."
Jane Minto, director of admissions for Oxford University, said admissions tutors who were hoping for an A-level distinction A grade would probably revert to asking for A-level scores.
As far as support for a baccalaureate was concerned, she said: "We are quite pleased with the notion of a baccalaureate. Our expectation is that our students would have studied more academic subjects, but there is no problem with them doing a balance of studies as well."
School and college heads believe the proposed baccalaureate will at least initially have to be a "wrapper" made up of existing qualifications. Mr Tomlinson said that there should be ways of distinguishing performance within the three levels.
Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality for the Association of Colleges, said that for this to work, the baccalaureate would have to be the "only game in town", and "genuinely meet the needs of all learners".
Runshaw Academy nurtures engineering talent
Schools and colleges in Leyland, Lancashire, found it hard to convince parents that their children should study GCSE engineering until they set up a partnership that allowed a clear progression route into higher education or work.
Now an "Academy of Engineering" at Runshaw College is attracting enough 14-year-olds from local schools, girls and boys, to fill a weekly class.
Successful students will be able to go from GCSE to A level or AVCE, foundation degree, and on to gain a BEng Hons at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Peter Gent, head of engineering at the college, said: "The biggest problem has always been to get parents to let their children do engineering. But as soon as we were able to show them these progression routes and possibilities, the response was amazing."
As well as working with schools and universities, the college is seeking partnerships with local medium-sized companies willing to pay foundation degree students to train, and to provide them with the equivalent of a year's work experience.
The package, known as the Industry Partner Scholarship in Applied Engineering, has support from the Engineering Employers' Federation.
Mr Gent said: "It is like a sandwich course. At the end of it, the firms will have someone who has a foundation degree and a year's work experience. Students have the choice of going into employment or going on to university to gain a BEng."
Leicestershire trio pioneers key skills route to further study
A pact between three universities and schools and colleges in Leicestershire that helps students progress to further and higher education has been updated in the light of green paper proposals.
The New Progression Accord, developed by a consortium including Leicester, De Montfort and Loughborough universities, gives students the chance to gain a qualification for acquiring key skills such as problem-solving, working with others and career planning.
The qualification, based on Open College Network credit-based programmes of study, is available at foundation, intermediate and advanced levels.
Students who gain three accord units at top level can progress to participating universities, which will grant them a 30-point reduction in the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service entry requirements to more than 300 higher education courses.
Those with four units at level two may be recognised by further education colleges as having the equivalent of an extra GCSE.
The agreement was struck after universities and colleges raised concerns that many recruits lacked key skills, which schools felt were being squeezed out by the national curriculum.
Accrediting the work made it easier to justify building it into the school timetable.
The accord has been coordinated by Leicester City Cluster, a 14-19 agency funded by schools, colleges, local authorities and the Learning and Skills Council.
Tim Farthing, City Cluster coordinator, said the enhanced offer agreement had made the qualification very popular. "Many youngsters are doing parts of the accord, but they tend to do it all if they are planning to go to university locally. We hope the new arrangements will give further support to what we are trying to achieve."