Page last updated at 14:05 GMT, Tuesday, 1 April 2008 15:05 UK

Where learning strategy takes us

By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

Jim Knight
Jim Knight says most schools and colleges will offer Diplomas

What are parents to make of the latest strategy on 14 to 19 qualifications in England to have emerged from the lofty heights of the Department for Children, Schools and Families?

Schools Secretary Ed Balls says the existing qualifications system is "too complex" and difficult for youngsters and their parents and advisers to understand.

"We want a more comprehensive and coherent qualification for young people, supporting better progression through a set of clear, well-valued qualification choices."

So instead of having GCSEs and A-levels, Applied GCSEs and Applied A-levels, various other vocational qualifications and Apprenticeships with NVQs, there is going to be a "streamlined offer" ... of GCSEs and A-levels, the new Diplomas and Apprenticeships - still containing NVQs.

And - well, various vocational qualifications still, provided students and employers want them and a new approvals quango says the government should continue to fund them for maintained schools and colleges.

The International Baccalaureate, which Tony Blair had promised everyone could do if they wished, is no longer part of the entitlement but will still be available in some schools in most areas.

And the Pre-U exam, being introduced by one exam board as a rival to A-levels, is now getting accreditation.

There is an entire fourth "tier" of "foundation learning" aimed at those working below good GCSE-level attainment.

'Duplication'

Diplomas are starting to be taught in some places from this year at four levels of attainment - but the government is also adding "extended" Diplomas at each level.

It is not clear how that decision - to take a system that has not yet begun and double it - fits with the new "streamlined" approach.

A major review of the whole lot is promised for 2013, by which time all 17 Diplomas and extended Diplomas should be available everywhere to post-16 students, and the original 14 occupational subjects to those aged 14 to 16.

Can we see yet what will happen then?

Well, the government's strategy document contains some breathtaking non-sequiturs.

For example, it says that Diplomas will in practice duplicate what is offered by Applied A-levels - so those can be scrapped.

But it says Applied GCSEs will continue "to provide a distinct offer for those who do not choose to pursue a Diploma". So they are being kept for now.

How is it that Applied A-levels do not similarly provide something distinctive for those not choosing to pursue a Diploma at advanced level?

'Pre-judging'

Here's another puzzle: the strategy says that to offer the three "academic" Diploma subjects - languages, mathematics and science - to those aged 14 would "pre-judge the future of GCSEs".

This presumably means that the more academic Diplomas would duplicate what the GCSEs offer.

Then how is it that the advanced academic Diplomas will not duplicate maths, language and science A-levels?

Does not the decision to offer those "pre-judge the future" of A-levels?

In fact the likely outcome is spelt out in the strategy, it is just that ministers are being selective about what they highlight.

The strategy proposes quite simply to "bring the best of existing qualifications within the Diploma framework".

That is, any existing qualifications.

Body massage

Briefing reporters on what was being proposed, Schools Minister Jim Knight cited BTecs - the vocational qualifications taken by something like two in every seven 15-year-olds - as an example of this.

He said the aim was to take the strength of some of the BTecs and put them into "a much broader, stronger brand in the Diploma".

The others would be expected to go in a bonfire of under-used vocational qualifications - journalists have had some fun at the expense of cake decorating, body massage and parking attendant certificates.

Noticeably Mr Knight did not say the same would be done with GCSEs and A-levels.

But his department's strategy document explicitly does.

It talks about bringing into Diplomas "the strengths of existing general qualifications, such as GCSEs and A-levels" (my stress).

Qualification - singular

The head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ken Boston does not have to worry so much about the political sensitivities of these debates.

He told a recent conference of school and college leaders that when the system was reviewed in 2013, if by then Diplomas had been successfully established there would no longer be any function for a parallel A-level system.

A-levels would have "no utility" outside the Diploma structure, he said.

Look back at what Schools Secretary Ed Balls said at the start of this: "We want a more comprehensive and coherent qualification for young people...".

That's "a ... qualification". Singular. Not, a more comprehensive "system"; a more comprehensive "qualification".

Guess which one.

I asked Jim Knight what the government's long-term aim was.

He said that for the next five years there would be the three-pronged approach of GCSEs and A-levels, Diplomas and Apprenticeships.

There would then be the 2013 review.

He looked me straight in the eye and added: "And we are completely open-minded about that review at this point."

He didn't bat an eyelid.



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