Crying out for Sir Ron

April 14, 1995

The vital words have been uttered: send for Sir Ron. At long last the Government has noticed, what people all around have been saying for years, that there is a consensus that "the qualifications framework needs to evolve". In other words it is time to review A levels.

Oh so careful are the words, redolent of fear that another posse of rebels will ride out of the Tory shires in defence of the golden A level. "It will take time". Sir Ron Dearing will, of course, bring together the relevant agencies. "Decisions must be based on hard evidence coming from detailed research and analysis." Sir Ron will want to consider and offer advice "on ways to strengthen and consolidate the framework..." This time next year will be time enough.

But, in truth, the work was done long ago. It is hard to think of an area of policy more thoroughly researched. Everything that could be done by those lacking the power to introduce change has been done. Every escape avenue alternative ladders, parallel tracks, separate but equal, all leading everywhere, to work and to university has been explored and found wanting.

Perhaps this is what finally persuaded the Government to shift. For changes being introduced by stealth modularisation, fervent assertion that General National Vocational Qualifications were A levels really coupled with huge demand from students when GNVQs became available, have sapped the strength of A levels.

Evidence from university staff confronted with students emerging apparently successfully from A level courses, and from employers confronted with the inadequate preparation for work of those who tried but failed, has shown A levels to be crumbling. They no longer reliably push students through the equivalent of first year university work at school so they can achieve the standard once required for our uniquely short, specialised three-year honours degrees. They do not provide a broad basis from which potential students can decide between humanities, social sciences, languages and sciences. They do not provide a suitable basis for employment.

So, yes, there is a consensus for change. It is hardly imaginable, given the snubs administered in the past to those who have recommended reform, that the redoubtable Sir Ron would have undertaken this task if did he not know something could be done.

In moving now the Government appears to have realised that the carefully guarded standard is no longer the treasure it was; that the opposition parties were about to steal a march by promising reform and a coherent structure; and that with nearly 70 per cent of young people staying on in full-time education after 16, there is more electoral advantage in change than in clinging to a gold standard most cannot attain.

What now should be done? The Association of Teachers and Lecturers is on the right lines with its demand for a single examining system for all qualifications. Scotland is already ahead on this. Second, breadth of study must be required. Some sort of grouped certificate is needed along lines opposition parties and the National Commission on Education have been considering: the ATL's portfolio alone could be too undemanding. Third, get cracking with credit accumulation schemes so students can compose their broad qualification to suit their interests. Employers and higher education would then be able to specify the preparation required for potential staff or students and high standards and diversity could be reconciled.

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