Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Fighting back

Boxing gloves

The 14-19 white paper shows every sign of being written by committee and school leaders who had their fingers burned with Curriculum 2000 and are not likely to settle for more half-hearted recommendations. However, SHA is not yet ready to throw in the towel.

It was desperately disappointing for SHA that the government white paper paid so little heed to the central recommendation of the Tomlinson report on 14 to 19.

This association has campaigned for more than 20 years for an improved qualifications system. I have been personally involved in that campaign for 15 of those years.

As Mike Tomlinson's 14-to-19 reports gradually appeared - first as a 'progress report', then an 'interim report', then the final version - SHA members thought that real progress was being made towards our objectives.

Significantly, each of the three reports was delayed as Tomlinson sought the consensus that he believed would bring a guarantee of government backing.

On the first two occasions, Charles Clarke did, indeed, support the proposals, but alarm bells began ringing when the final report appeared and the prime minister immediately reassured an audience from industry that A levels were safe in his hands (to paraphrase one of his predecessor's comments on a different area of policy).

Even Charles Clarke, presenting the report to Parliament, managed to sound less than wholly enthusiastic about some of Tomlinson's conclusions.

So where did it all go wrong? When did it become such a high political priority for the government to retain A levels and GCSEs almost entirely in their present form?

The answer, regrettably, has to cite the 2005 general election as the main culprit and a failure of will at the top of government to hold to what we all thought were its principles. Why else would it have set up the Tomlinson group in the first place?

In early 2003, when the Tomlinson group was established, its terms of reference sought:

  • a strengthened structure of vocational qualifications

  • greater coherence in learning programmes for all young people

  • manageable assessment appropriate for different types of courses

  • a unified framework of qualifications

There was no mention of keeping A levels and GCSEs. The terms of reference concluded with the expectation that the group would consult employers, universities and young people; learn from practice in other countries; and use evidence from the 14-to-19 pathfinder projects.

Wary of reform

SHA members will be wary of introducing reforms into their schools and colleges - with all the work that entails - unless they have a guarantee that the reforms will be accepted by the other key players in the system. We have been here before.

Schools and colleges invested an enormous amount of energy in the Curriculum 2000 reforms, only to find that most universities gave no credit for extra AS subjects or for key skills.

Having had their fingers thus burned so recently, SHA members will not be willing to embark on the latest half-hearted 14-to-19 reforms, such as the extended essay and the vocational diploma, if they think that the diploma will be of little or no use to their students.

Welsh schools will use the Welsh baccalaureate and English selective schools - and comprehensive schools with very large sixth forms - may increasingly use the international baccalaureate. Both are discussed later in this edition of Leader.

Much appears to have been sacrificed on the twin altars of GCSE and A level. There is no educational logic in maintaining a huge external examination industry at the age of 16 when most people remain in full-time education and training up to and beyond 18.

The government itself has said on several occasions that GCSEs should become a staging post and should cease to be an endpoint.

The conclusion must be that the government is not, in fact, serious about creating a 14-to-19 continuum and is content to retain as separate phases Key Stage 4 and post-16.

The pressure from ministers on schools and colleges to improve progression has not been matched by the government's actions.

Missing the point

The debate about whether A level should stay misses the point. Neither Tomlinson nor SHA nor anyone else has said that A level should disappear immediately. In the short and medium term, A level would be the building block for the advanced diploma.

By the time the name 'A level' disappeared as the diploma became established, the standard and content of A level would be firmly embedded into the diploma structure.

Nothing would have been lost in terms of standards, but much would have been gained in coherence, esteem and life chances for young people.

The proximity of the general election was widely considered to be the main cause of the diploma's failure. By retaining A levels and GCSEs in their present form, the argument goes, the prime minister was able to take out of the election any argument about whether the Labour government was going soft on standards.

In fact, it may not have been as simple as that, since the Conservative shadow Secretary of State, Tim Collins, writing in the last edition of Leader, stated his belief that "an overarching diploma could and should have included A levels and GCSEs".

There may have been other causes for the government's decision. Most of the children of the middle classes take A levels and GCSEs, not vocational qualifications. So reform is thought to be electorally safer in the latter field.

There must be the suspicion, too, that the government's obsession with league tables has influenced its decision, even though it would be perfectly possible to devise measures to hold schools and colleges to account for their performance under a diploma system.

League tables of performance at age 16 are a manifest nonsense in a 14-to-19 system.

Disastrous on assessment

If the government's response has been disappointing on the diploma, it is surely disastrous on assessment.

Shortly before the publication of the white paper on 14 to 19, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority released a report putting the cost of the bloated external examinations system at £610 million per year.

Everyone recognises that fundamental change of the examination system is needed. That was, after all, one of the main reasons for setting up the Tomlinson group in the first place. Reducing the A level modules from six to four is welcome, but does not solve the problem.

The Tomlinson group recommended much greater use of in-course assessment by teachers and adopted the SHA proposal for a system of chartered assessors - experienced teachers externally accredited to carry out internal assessment.

Moderated internal assessment is used in universities, where lecturers have no training in assessment; why not also in schools and colleges, where teachers have been trained in this professional skill?

Not to adopt this recommendation demonstrates a depressing lack of confidence in the professionalism of teachers.

A way forward?

The white paper shows every sign of having been written by a committee and finished in a hurry. It is full of repetition and, to put it bluntly, waffle.

It does, however, contain some good points, such as the drive to improve performance in mathematics and English and the slimming of the 11-to-14 curriculum.

There are a few government documents that have stood the test of time and which repay time spent reading them years later. The 14-to-19 white paper is not one of them.

Although there is a glimmer of hope that the diploma might be reconsidered in 2008 (just before another general election?), it is profoundly to be hoped that the debate will by then have moved well beyond the best that government could come up with in 2005.

In the meantime, schools and colleges will continue to build their partnership work in the 14-to-19 field, which has already extended opportunities for many young people and brought improved progression in many local areas.

This emphasis on local collaboration, as Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours say on page 16, is surely the best way in which SHA members can take forward the 14-to-19 agenda.

Nationally, SHA will continue to campaign for a unified, coherent system, working with our colleagues in HMC, GSA, the Association of Colleges and other associations.

With no progress towards coherence, few reforms of the assessment system and no unified qualifications framework, the government has failed most of the tests that it set only two years earlier for Mike Tomlinson and his group.

As David Johnson states in his article on page 32, in a sentiment echoed by Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours, surely the white paper cannot be the final word on 14 to 19.

By John Dunford, SHA General Secretary

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