Dearing preaches to unconverted

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's intention, to "recognise explicitly" the equivalence of vocational and academic qualifications, was received sceptically in both the old and the new sectors of higher education this week.

Admissions experts like David Burgher of Exeter University's school of education said: "I compare this to the renaming of polytechnics as universities. Calling something an A level doesn't make it an A level. While some vocational qualifications are no doubt very respectable an awful lot do not meet the requirements of A levels."

While welcoming a relaxation of the rigid division between the academic and vocational routes, Adrian James, head of admissions at the University of Central Lancashire, doubted whether Sir Ron's solution was the right way to discard the present two-tier system which devalued vocational education.

"I am not convinced this is the right way to strengthen a qualification for university selectors or employers," he said. "There must be a way of treating the two tiers as different but with equal value which does not rely on some mechanistic equivalence."

And Sig Prais of the Institute for Social and Economic Research in London said that rigorous assessment of GNVQs would need to be introduced before any talk of equivalence with A levels became meaningful. "There should be two kinds of vocational education, one a skills test, the other a true career qualification which could possibly be related to the A level," he said.

Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, highlighted the awkward dilemma posed by enforcing equivalence of vocational and academic routes. "Vocational qualifications are designed to cover a very wide ability range, unlike A levels," he said. "By renaming GNVQs applied A levels you assume the cache of the A level which is aimed at a restricted group of students and you must presumably raise the standard. What proportion of the age group would then be capable of achieving this standard? Would yet another qualification be needed to fill the gap?"

The AUT also received the idea that students could take part of a degree while at school or college with scepticism: "There is no evidence that this measure is needed and it raises serious concerns about resources," Mr Cottrell said.

The Secondary Heads Association said on the whole it welcomed the proposals although it was disappointed that some A levels such as maths and physics would still be more difficult than other subjects.

President John Dunford said he supported the bringing together of the three pathways which would make it easier for students to move between them.

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