Endearing to all sides

March 29, 1996

Careful advance briefing and careful gathering of long-circulated ideas secured a smooth passage for Sir Ron Dearing's report on 16-19 qualifications published this week. It contains few surprises; indeed, no surprises is Sir Ron's stock in trade.

The immediate acceptance of his report by Gillian Shephard, secretary of state for education and employment, is unsurprising. Some of his ideas will be implemented at once, while others will be acted on by September 1997. But their lack of radicalism is still disappointing for those who had hoped for something more adventurous. It will further entrench separate pathways after 16, even if some bridges have been thrown across the gap in the form of certification for mixed bundles of applied and academic study.

The hope of radical change was slim given Sir Ron's terms of reference requiring that he protect the rigour of A levels, and made slimmer by the right's determination to ensure no slippage on this point and an apparent lack of enthusiasm for a new baccalaureat among the more privileged schools. If his proposals are accepted it will be left to the students, using their own choices, to build those bridges into something solid and meaningful.

The rightwing hawks may even now not be satisfied. Sir Ron's great goal of raising the status of vocational qualifications, which largely depends on ensuring that they do genuinely open the path to higher education, is anathema to the right. But there will be objections from the right and beyond to one of the few surprises the report does contain: the idea of two-year degrees following first-year degree work undertaken in sixth form or further education college.

This proposal has particular resonance in view of Sir Ron's impending review of higher education. If such a proposal becomes linked to changes in funding recommended in the higher education review, the whole pattern of first degree education could be changed. There will be many who would want to wait for the higher education review before deciding to take that road.

Besides this there is little in Sir Ron's report against which anyone will be able to drum up strident opposition. The evolutionary changes proposed have a good chance of acceptance, particularly at the lower qualification levels. Legislation is required only for the proposed merger of the Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Agency and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. Beyond that, implementation mainly involves printing a stockpile of certificates for those who muster the required points on the recalibrated modular tariffs for each of Sir Ron's four levels - and much detailed work to slot some 16,000-20,000 existing qualifications into that system.

Much of this work has been done and most of the bridging pieces required to hold together the four-tier framework - like the proposed AS level in literacy, numeracy and information technology - make use of existing bits of kit which are lying around underused.

Sir Ron's proposals for sharpening GNVQ and NVQ qualifications will find wide acceptance. They need to be acted upon with energy so that these already popular but not entirely confidence inspiring qualifications gain more credibility. The Labour party's policy document published last week suggests that it will have little to object to in this. Indeed if Sir Ron were not so assiduous a seeker of consensus he might resent the readiness with which politicians pinch his ideas. But that is the penalty of pursuing the art of the possible.

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