Righteous paths

March 29, 1996

Dearing appears to be taking England down quite a different road from that being mapped out in Scotland, observe Michael Young and Ken Spours. The proposals of the Dearing review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds are far from revolutionary. They may even be a step backwards. A levels will stay as they are (in fact they will be toughened), there will be some adjustments to GNVQs plus overarching certification to encourage breadth of study.

Despite its claims, the 1991 White Paper Education and Training for the 21st Century did not establish a modern system of qualifications. Our general education is too narrow and our full-time vocational education lacks both the core content and specialised knowledge that might enable students to respond to future economic challenges. NVQs, at least outside the care sector and a small number of firms, have done little to overcome the lack of currency of vocational qualifications among employers.

In response to similar global pressures as the Dearing review, the Higher Still programme for unifying upper secondary education was launched in Scotland. Its proposals for reform provide a valuable framework for evaluating the Dearing proposals. Because of the more flexible system that the Scots have inherited, Higher Still did not need to be radical, at least not structurally. The old Highers were "small" enough for some students to take five of them and the National Certificate was modular and contained general as well as vocational modules. From 1998 the Scottish system will be replaced by one that is more unified and fully modular. Separate academic and vocational qualifications will be replaced by a single qualification system with curriculum guidelines as the basis for advising students on their combinations of modules.

Whereas Highers and the Scottish National Certificate modules will be incorporated into a single system in Scotland, the Dearing proposals leave A levels and GNVQs largely untouched. Three new qualifications are also proposed - a revised one-year AS examination, a National Certificate at three levels (an Advanced National equivalent to Advanced GNVQ or two A levels and core skills at level 3), and a National Diploma consisting of A levels or AS examinations in each of four domains to encourage breadth.

There is some merit in individual proposals, but taken as a whole, they could introduce new divisions and confusion. It is difficult to see how more certification and marginally adjusted existing qualifications will make the system more transparent. Unlike Higher Still, where there will be one qualification at different levels, the new diploma and certificates will be voluntary extras which students may choose to take and some schools and colleges may decide to offer.

The major problem that Sir Ron faced was to find a way of squaring the circle of providing breadth and not changing A levels. This is what the new national diploma, based on four knowledge domains, sets out to do. With its requirement for students to study both a foreign language and mathematics, the new diploma could be tougher than even three A levels and still lack equivalence in the eyes of employers and admission tutors. It could suffer the same fate as AS examinations, which few students take, unless it is given a significantly higher tariff rating by the University and Colleges Admissions Service or it is made mandatory for those wishing to enter university.

The Higher Still programme in Scotland is aiming to develop a national diploma based on a broad consensus that Highers need reforming. England and Wales are embarking on reform from a very different starting point. We have a more entrenched triple-track qualification system and far more unproductive competition between institutions. There is also a powerful lobby, including some Government ministers, who want to keep A levels as they are and are obsessed with end of course examinations. The Dearing proposals will lead to the merging of SCAA and NCVQ but will, at the same time, consolidate the three distinctive pathways.

Why, in several important respects, is the post-compulsory curriculum developing in two different directions in Scotland and England? The answer must be in part that the Scots start with a less divided system and they have been able to put curriculum and qualification issues before politics. Dearing has left untouched the divisions of the English system and possibly added to its complexity. The reasons for the divergence are a reluctance to extend modularisation, as the Scots have done, and a decision not to reconsider assessment of A levels and to set them within a single qualification framework.

England and Scotland have different traditions and starting points which will influence the nature and pace of change. A system that might work well for a country with a small population will not necessarily be right for one with a much larger one. However, with his emphasis on making the different pathways more distinct, Dearing appears to be taking England in a very different direction, not just working from a different starting point. Should we not be moving in convergent rather than divergent directions?

We and the Centre for Educational Sociology at the University of Edinburgh are making a comparative study of post-16 curriculum developments in Scotland and England as part of the ESRC Learning Society Programme. If you want more information or to take part in a case study contact us at the Post-16 Education Centre, Institute of Education, London.

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