Clear parity between academic and vocational paths to higher education came a step closer this week as education secretary Gillian Shephard detailed "the biggest shake-up of the qualifications system for 40 years".
Reform of exam-awarding bodies, a new AS-level exam, and a new compulsory exam in key skills would bring greater coherence and breadth to post-16-year-old education, said Mrs Shephard. And her raft of measures, she insisted, was just a prerequisite to realising Sir Ron Dearing's ultimate vision of transparent parity of esteem between all education pathways for 16-19-year-olds.
Key among the proposals Mrs Shephard announced was a measure to reduce the number of exam boards and syllabuses on offer in an effort increase accountability. The move comes in the wake of last month's damning report that the Oxford and Cambridge board had inflated grades simply to meet schools' predictions.
The exam board "crack-down", as the Department for Education and Employment has called it, has already been hailed as the return to credibility of the damaged A-level "gold standard". Mrs Shephard must hope that this, coupled with the additional announcement of more rigorous A-level core syllabuses, will satisfy the vociferous proponents of A levels in her party. Educationists who argue that true parity will only come from abandoning the A level, an idea understood to have gained credence with Sir Ron Dearing, will be disappointed with the re-emphasis.
But Mrs Shephard was wary about promoting the A level above the vocational routes. The reduced number of exam boards, she stressed, would be "unity boards" - all offering the full spectrum of vocational and academic qualifications, in the interests of parity. "The more boards and syllabuses there are," said Mrs Shephard, "the more difficult it is to ensure consistency across the system. Standards must be easily understood by employers and higher education."
Mrs Shephard also gave the go-ahead to the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority's controversial reformulated AS-level. A new Advanced Subsidiary qualification will replace the existing Advanced Supplementary exam. Designed to allow broader tertiary study options, including the option to combine both General Vocational Qualifications and A levels, the new AS will form the first half of the full A-level course and would normally be completed at the end of the first year of a full, two-year A-level course.
The University and Colleges Admissions Service particularly welcomed this move. "It will be a distinct advantage to admissions tutors to have the results of a formal external exam before applications are made," said chief executive Tony Higgins.
Plans for a new key skills qualification were also announced. Firm proposals for the assessment of communication skills, IT skills and numeracy are expected by June this year. Mrs Shephard said she would prefer to see compulsory tests. "We aim to develop a key skills qualification that can be made available across all pathways," she said. "We would therefore have a qualification that would demonstrate to employers and those in higher education that students had the same skills, at the same standards regardless of their route."
The new shake-up, Mrs Shephard confirmed, was not the end of Dearing's parity vision. "There is a lot of other work in hand towards accrediting achievement across the exam pathways," she said.
The work in hand, UCAS confirmed, was the development of a new qualifications points system. "We have just received a DFEE grant for the second phase of developing a points system that will put all 18-plus qualifications on a common points tariff," said UCAS chief executive Tony Higgins. "There will then be clear parity of esteem and opportunity for those taking A levels, AS-levels, General National Vocational Qualifications and vocational qualifications."
Consultation will begin in "the next few weeks" he said, and the new system should be in place by the end of 1997.