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Tuesday, 26 June, 2001, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
'Climbing frame' of new qualifications
exam room
The most tested students in the world
The head of England's qualifications authority has proposed replacing the present "confusing" array of qualifications with a simpler framework that learners, parents and employers could understand.

We are surely learning that untested and untrialled innovations can so easily destabilise and confuse

David Hargreaves
David Hargreaves, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), said there was a need to reassess the present structure of the curriculum and exams.

Speaking at the QCA's annual conference in London, he said the government's consultation proposals - expected to form the basis of an Education Bill by the end of the year - argued for a new balance between compulsion and entitlement in the curriculum for 14 to 16 year olds.

On the day the education secretary proposed at the same conference that there should be a new school graduation certificate, he advocated simpler names for the existing qualifications, with all their acronyms and level numbers.

Forty million test papers

"Our assessment system is elaborate, extensive and expensive," he said.

David Hargreaves
David Hargreaves: GCSEs to become I-levels?
"The sheer number of tests and examination papers that the system has to handle for pupils up to the age of 19 now exceeds 40 million annually. It was not designed as a coherent system of assessment.

"During recent decades, a relatively simple system has been added to in a piecemeal way and, perhaps not surprisingly, has produced weaknesses that have made it a target of widespread criticism."

But it had helped to raise standards.

The government had suggested that in future the GCSE exam should be "a progress check for most at the midpoint of the 14-19 programme".

Abolition of GCSEs

"Here is a startling phrase, though in reality it is no more than a blunt acknowledgement that the 16-plus examinations have unquestionably and irretrievably ceased to be a leaving certificate for most students, whereas this was true a generation ago," he said.

Some people - among them the National Association of Head teachers - have argued for abolishing GCSEs.

"I have to say in my view that would be a grave mistake," he said. It would "create a hole" between the national curriculum tests at age 14 and the AS and A-levels for 17 and 18 year olds.

"Assessment systems will continue to evolve, but we are surely learning that untested and untrialled innovations can so easily destabilise and confuse," said Mr Hargreaves - who has been asked by the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, to report urgently on what many regard as the botched introduction of AS-levels and Key Skills qualifications.

Confusing numbers

Part of the problem with the present national framework of qualifications was the use of numbers as well as names - and the numbers did not match the "key stage" numbers in the national curriculum.

"This is very confusing to everyone involved, especially students, parents and employers," Mr Hargreaves said.

So he suggested names for the different levels so that everyone could have a clear mental map of the qualifications "climbing frame":

  • Foundation - where most people got "a foothold", though with an entry level before it. Would include the present lower GCSE grades.
  • Intermediate - a mid-point and "a far better name for the GCSE, signalling unmistakably to all that they are meant to progress beyond it" and making Level 2 National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) a stepping stone.
  • Advanced - "already the best known name in the whole system" which no-one seemed to want to change. Level 3 NVQs could be called Advanced NVQs to signal to employers that they were on a par with academic or vocational A-levels.
Before 1988, Mr Hargreaves said, too many students used to give up too much too soon and damage their future opportunities, which is why the national curriculum had been introduced, providing "entitlement to 10 subjects by compulsion".

This proved too prescriptive and was soon revised. Later the concept of "disapplication" had been introduced so that those aged 14 to 16 could be spared subjects that were useless to them.


But the disapplication rules were so complicated few teachers or head teachers knew what they were.

The government's green paper made its new position clear:

"From 14, the curriculum will offer a significant degree of choice┐ A wide variety of opportunities will be tailored to each person's aptitudes, abilities and preferences┐

"The individual pathways chosen at 14 will provide a broad programme and each will prepare young people for the world of work and for further study."

He supported this but it raised important questions. The trickiest was, what should every student have a fundamental right to study?

"There has, surely, to be a balance between the entitlement to choice and the entitlement to share in the knowledge and culture that we regard as common to all," he said.

"Few would want us to return to the free-for-all of the 14-16 curriculum that preceded the national curriculum."

Choices at 16
Would award ceremonies make you stay on?

The latest on the new post-16 qualifications
Post-16 overload?

See also:

26 Jun 01 | UK Education
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