Smithers counsels against unity

December 29, 1995

Calls from politicians, education leaders and captains of industry for a unified qualifications system should be resisted, MPs have been told.

A single modular qualifications framework embracing academic and vocational studies would bring about a loss of coherence and identity in learning programmes and weaken links to higher education and employment, according to Alan Smithers, head of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Manchester University.

Professor Smithers has told the House of Commons Education Committee that the unified modular qualifications system favoured by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, some Conservative education leaders, many prominent academics, and the Confederation of British Industry, could lead to a "mish-mash of modules lacking coherence and identity".

The aim of creating so-called "parity of esteem" between academic and vocational study by unifying the system is a "false goal", he argues in his submission to the committee's review of education and training for 14 to 19-year-olds.

"The qualifications, whatever they are called, which lead to the best universities and the best jobs will always tend to be valued most," he says.

Professor Smithers suggests that it would be better to address weaknesses in A levels, National Vocational Qualifications and General NVQs, than to merge them together, warts and all, under a qualifications monopoly.

"The present option array post-16 could be built upon to provide a set of qualifications that meant something and led somewhere for the whole spectrum of our young people," he says.

This could mean broadening the A level option, with AS levels converted into a half-way house to an A level and taken in five subjects by lower sixth-formers, who could then go on to take up to five full A levels.

GNVQs should be turned into "Applied A levels" and the new GNVQ Part One into "Applied GCSEs", which could be awarded by either academic or vocational awarding bodies. And NVQs should be offered in two modes: occupational training in work, and occupational training for work - which is not covered by existing NVQ programmes.

Professor Smithers says A levels and the retitled GNVQs should be regulated by the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority and NVQs by the National Vocational Qualifications. Maintaining two regulatory bodies rather than bringing about the SCAA/NCVQ merger which Sir Ron Dearing's qualifications review is considering would avoid the risks associated with a monopoly, he adds.

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