In recent months the quantity of comment devoted to the quality of qualifications has reached an unprecedented level, with few qualifications escaping scrutiny. Examinations Quality and Standards 1996, an Ofsted report, once again focused the spotlight on A levels, ironically at a time when hackles were raised about an A-level question finding its way into a supposedly higher level degree course examination.
The arrival of modular A levels has raised questions about their quality, with mathematics receiving most censure, while vocational qualifications are criticised for variable standards. At degree level, criticism of "negotiated assignments that do not have to be done" and "examinations that examine nothing much" (Libby Purves in The Times, February 18 1997) give popular backing to the claim of the chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council that evidence before the Department for Education and Employment confirms that the handling of standards is now the number one issue.
Responses to qualification quality issues seem to have taken two forms since the late 1980s. The first, applied mainly to school and further education qualifications, has been to write codes of practice. These codes originated to curb the variations in standards which arose as a consequence of competing awarding bodies offering qualifications in the same subjects but seeking to incorporate sufficient distinctiveness to attract a sustainable market share.
The second response, which confuses qualification quality with the notion of a qualification system, involves creating "frameworks". In his Review of Qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds, Sir Ron Dearing proposed a four-tier framework for national awards while noting that the distinctive character of these awards should be retained. Two (unfounded) assumptions underpinning this approach are: first, that a single framework is a guarantor of quality, and, second, that quality will emerge by association.
Such measures seem destined to struggle as tools for establishing the quality of qualifications. Their effect is to create a form of qualification apartheid - equality only in name. For there is insufficient similarity among different qualifications to be regarded as equal, either in terms of status or, more practically, in the access they give to other (higher) qualifications. Frameworks and points systems will not dispel such disparity because they do not eliminate the differences between qualifications which account for variations in quality.
The credit-based qualifications system proposed by the Further Education Development Agency offers an example. This framework rests on encapsulating all learning in the form of assessment units. Learning is expressed in terms of outcomes with each one accompanied by an assessment criterion stating the required quality of work for the outcome to be fulfilled. The core quality of any qualification generated on this basis thus rests on the calibre of the learning outcomes and, more crucially, on the clarity of the assessment criteria. However, the constituents of these key attributes remain undefined - with the result that they are wide open to variation. In courses where such units are already prominent, outcomes are commonly interchanged with learning processes and assessment criteria often take the form of descriptions of assessment activity, setting no clear standards for achievement.
The current debate points to a more radical measure, one establishing principles to which all qualifications should conform. The advent of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority offers an opportunity to put the fundamental elements of quality in place across all levels of qualifications.
Despite a rash of initiatives in recent years there has been a singular failure to define the elements that make for qualification quality. Effort has been invested in syllabus quality and examination procedures, but this has been in the interests of consistency within particular qualifications, such as GNVQs. Very little effort has been devoted to consistency of practice across different types of qualification.
One issue concerns definition of attainment. Modular A levels and degrees enable the full parent qualification to be earned in instalments, perhaps after multiple attempts. In the case of A levels, modular syllabuses require at least as much, if not more, (assessed) learning as their traditional counterparts. Nevertheless, there are fears that the final qualification is not as good as one obtained through traditional examinations.
Recent criticism of modular A-level maths as unsuitable for people intending to take maths or engineering at university is an example. As the subject coverage is the same as in conventional syllabuses, critics of the modular qualification seem to be placing their faith in the ability of students to cope with a heavy assessment load at one time. If this is the holy grail of qualification quality, then that should be made explicit.
Pass marks provide another example of disparity. Here, variations between qualifications occur depending on whether an overall aggregated mark determines the pass mark or whether a specified mark on each examination component (papers, modules, projects) is required before students become eligible for a final award.
Allied to the pass mark issue is the admissibility of the competence model of success. The notion of a "minimum performance requirement" is associated with qualifications accredited by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. It is also part of the courses assembled under the umbrella of FEDA's credit-based framework. Rigid adherence to this approach means that the motivation to exceed minimum performance levels is reduced, with adverse consequences for the perceived quality of qualifications based on it. In the case of GNVQs it has been necessary to create additional criteria to enable students who are more than just competent to be distinguished. Thus the odds are stacked against competence-based qualifications being compared favourably with those which encourage students to perform at the top of their ability.
It is incredible that the one area in which a British Standard does not exist is in the field of educational qualifications. The government should back the development of such a standard as a means of ensuring that qualifications designed to serve different purposes are not open to the damaging criticism of fundamental intellectual weakness.
The standard need not be lengthy or tortuous; that is the role of codes of practice. Rather, it should bite hard on those aspects of qualifications which result in some being perceived as worth less.
The establishment of a single qualifications authority offers a rare opportunity to define the core quality parameters to which all the qualifications approved under the various procedures operated by the DFEE and its satellites should subscribe.
It would be a valuable curtain-raiser for QCA to conduct a debate on these issues and to remove forever the inequality of opportunity which has arisen from our failure to specify those generic features from which all qualifications should derive esteems untainted by reservations about quality and acceptability.
Clive Hart is an educational consultant specialising in post-16 education.