Mind the plumage

March 15, 1996

It was said of Edmund Burke, the 18th- century political thinker, that he pitied the plumage while forgetting the dying bird. A thinking Conservative, he would have appreciated the Labour party's approach to A levels, revealed in its draft document on 14-19 education. Mr Blunkett and his colleagues intend to keep the plumage but reform the bird.

The need for reform, long acknowledged by all parties, is restated. But possibly the most significant obstacle to reform - the attachment of many to the idea and the name of A levels - is acknowledged tacitly.

Like the Gold Standard to which they are often compared, A levels in their current form reflect outdated and harmful dogma. But by reflecting that orthodoxy they also command market confidence. By retaining the name but not the current structure Labour aims to retain that confidence - misplaced as it is - while making the necessary changes.

This is New Labour at its most characteristic - wary, consensual, determined to avoid giving hostages to fortune. Wherever possible it wraps itself in the colours of the forthcoming Dearing report on qualifications, endorsing both the idea that sixth formers should be stretched by taking modules of Open University courses and the suggestion that the term "Applied A levels" should replace the ungainly "Advanced GNVQs".

In this regard, it offers few substantial and imaginative alternatives - surely the raison d'etre of a political opposition - but at least this should mean that, once the general election is out of the way, whoever is in power should face few parliamentary obstacles in implementing a pre-university policy.

It makes few concessions to liberal education, with the question-begging proposal for "community-based" modules being almost the only gesture towards the idea of education as a preparation for life as much as a preparation for work.

Homo economicus is firmly in the ascendant and it is no longer possible to distinguish Labour from Conservative documents by the frequency of mantra-like references to employers' needs and wishes. Both are convinced of the need to defer to employers' demands, despite the mixed messages about just what these might be.

The document is aspirational, looking towards a time when 80 per cent will attain advanced level qualifications, while being careful not to place either a deadline or a cost on this advance on the 60 per cent target contemplated for the end of this century.

And it is certainly right when it points to the problems created by the complexity of choices currently offered to students and the failure to create a coherent framework in which they can mix and match different types of qualification. The rationalisation proposed - a hierarchy of advanced and intermediate diplomas - is long overdue and broadly accords with Dearing's expected recommendations later this month.

Whether the "parity-of-esteem" problem - which has long afflicted non A-level post-16 qualifications - will be solved is another matter. That will ultimately be a matter for the market, with student choices mixing with the willingness or otherwise of employers and higher education to accept their value. Universities, in particular, will have to decide whether they want specialists - in which case they could ask for a mixture of A levels, S levels and OU modules - or generalists.

On their decision rests the future shape of higher education, and almost certainly it will be more variegated than it is right now. A kaleidoscopic range of entry standards is sure to mean that the nice distinction between new and old universities will be history by the end of the century, if it is not already.

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