The government says its 14-19 initiative will construct a clear route to higher education. But critics disagree. Tony Tysome reports.
An overarching "matriculation diploma" marking the completion of school or college education and training is among the radical proposals outlined in the government's 14-19 green paper, published this week.
The paper, entitled Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards , is described by education secretary Estelle Morris as a "visionary document" that will "change the shape of post-14 learning". It proposes three levels of matriculation award:
* Intermediate, for school-leavers
* Advanced, set at the level of entry to higher education
* A higher award, to reflect "greater achievement at advanced level" for entry into top universities.
As an alternative, it suggests all young people could simply be provided with a certificate logging all their educational achievements, undifferentiated by level.
The idea is part of a proposed wide-ranging shake-up of secondary school and post-school education and training that aims to tailor learning to the individual needs and abilities of students.
Greater choice in the curriculum and different speed tracks with new types of qualifications, including a new "distinction" level at A level for the brightest students, are key ingredients.
The word "vocational" is to be scrubbed from qualification terminology as part of an effort to bring about a "vocational renaissance that captures the imagination of young people and challenges prejudice", Ms Morris said.
She added: "It is vital we inspire our young people with ambition and aspiration. We will not achieve this if we continue to force them into an educational straitjacket that stifles their talents."
The proposed matriculation diploma would not in itself be a separate qualification, but would mark significant levels of achievement in a range of areas of learning, including academic and vocational study. The advanced diploma might be made up of two A levels and one AS level, or their equivalent, or a new advanced modern apprenticeship diploma, or NVQ level 3 plus a technical certificate.
The higher diploma could require at least grades A and two Bs at A level, plus an AS level or an NVQ level 4.
The intermediate award might be made up of five GCSE grades A to C or the equivalent, or a foundation modern apprenticeship diploma. All diplomas could also encompass citizenship studies, work-related learning, literacy, numeracy and information and communications technology.
A new matriculation award is needed because current study programmes are so narrow that activities and achievements beyond formal qualifications are undervalued and lead to unwarranted prejudices about the merits of academic and vocational learning, the paper says. A new overarching award should help motivate more young people to continue in education and training up to the age of 19 because a wider range of achievement would be recognised.
The paper says the government has ruled out introducing an international baccalaureate on the grounds that it is "not designed to meet the needs of a high proportion of young people, nor could it without significant further upheaval".
The government wants young people to be able to progress through school and post-school education and training at a pace consistent with their abilities, in a system flexible enough to meet their needs.
While there should continue to be a core of GCSE subjects that all pupils pursue - English, maths, ICT and science - the most able pupils should be allowed to drop some GCSE subjects and move up a level to aim for AS levels. The fast track would extend to A levels, where students would be given the option of attempting additional in-depth questions to gain a distinction.
The paper says more options and flexibility should be offered throughout the 14-19 age range, arguing that "the more we treat the 14-19 period as a single phase, the greater the students' chances to move at a pace best suited to their abilities and preferred ways of learning".
High-quality qualifications should be available to vocationally oriented students, including those who aspire to go on to higher education, it says. A revamped modern apprenticeship will provide one route, while an expanded range of GCSEs in vocational subjects, to be available from September, will open up new pathways to vocational A levels.
The paper suggests one of the consequences of the changes might be more students progressing early to higher education, or taking a gap year before going on to university.
14-19 green paper: key proposals
* Introduce a matriculation diploma that recognises achievement at 19 across a range of disciplines
* Increase the challenge at A level with an option for more demanding "distinction" questions in academic and vocational subjects
* Increase flexibility so individuals can learn at a pace right for them, including a "fast track to success"
* Free up the curriculum so students post-14 can pursue tailored programmes
* Build parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications