For when you are 16 going on 19

July 21, 1995

The United Kingdom education system provides well for high achievers. Our universities have already exceeded the target for expansion set for the year 2000. The UK is now a leader among European Union countries in graduate output.

Despite this record of large-scale success, there are concerns. One is the decline in the proportion and standards of students taking A-level mathematics and the sciences. Recruiting well-qualified students to engineering courses is difficult. I acknowledge these concerns in my interim report, and we must look for ways to tackle them.

Employers want new staff to be competent in the core skills of communication, the application of number, and the use of information technology. In addition, they value less tangible skills, such as team working or problem solving. I propose to look into the extent to which these skills should become part of all education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds.

Some feel we should encourage greater breadth in studies post-16. The interim report asks whether - without incurring the cost of a fourth year at a university - an option combining depth and breadth of study would be attractive. To illustrate, this might take a form of a special certificate, for those with achievement in five subjects plus the three core skills. At least two subjects would have to be at the full A level (above a specified grade) with the rest at AS. It would also be available for vocational subjects and for those combining the pathways.

I shall want to consult higher education on these and other issues.

But may I try to summarise the broad priorities for 16-19 as I see them. These priorities are relevant to achieving the new national education and training targets and fundamental to Britain's competitiveness.

First, we must reduce wastage among those who set out to achieve A levels or the equivalent vocational qualifications, but without any reduction in standards. It means better careers and education guidance for 16-year-olds. I raise the case for a revised AS, covering the ground of one year's A-level study instead of half the ground in full depth.

Second, we need to ensure that NVQs and GNVQs establish their reputations, not least among the universities. I propose to work closely on this with the National Council for VocationalQualifications.

Third, we must aim to raise the level of achievement of the 57 per cent of the age group who do not gain at least five GCSEs at grade C or above. This is crucial to Britain's future ability to earn its living in a century when we will feel the full force of competition from the Far East, China and India.

Fourth, the whole framework of post-16 qualifications needs to be made more coherent and comprehensible. Among the measures which might be considered to simplify the framework are common certification of qualifications; setting out the knowledge, skills and understanding required in different qualifications according to a common structure; aggregating all achievement into an overall numerical score; and adopting a clear common language. University admissions tutors will doubtless have views on how their task could be made easier.

Fifth, the qualifications framework must meet the needs of all, from the highest achievers to those with special educational needs, and it must increasingly allow for learners to proceed at their own pace in self-directed study.

We must ensure that the highest achievers are challenged, possibly through a revised form of S level, incorporating the kind of theory of knowledge programme found in the International Baccalaureate; or possibly through modules of university courses such as are made accessible to all by the Open University. We must find ways of switching the disaffected and low achievers into education and training. Failure to do so will be at a high personal and national cost.

Overall, we must maintain our standards for the most able, and we must aim to raise levels of genuine achievement by all. We would be fooling ourselves if we were to water down standards, for instance by condoning grade inflation at A level, to make it appear that we had achieved the new National Targets for Education and Training. Such a deception, like a debased currency, is not sustainable on the international market.

Nationally, we face a major challenge. But I revert to my opening point: the expansion of higher education has been a remarkable achievement. We need to repeat that success for all in the 16-19 age group. I look forward to hearing views from those in higher education who can help us do it, and a copy of the interim report will be sent to all institutions of higher education.

Sir Ron Dearing chairs the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

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