Sunday 4 July 2010

Getting 16-19 education right

Education Secretary Michael Gove has been setting out his plans for A level reform. He wants to reduce modules, scrap AS levels and get universities to play a greater part in syllabus design. There is certainly a strong case for further reducing modularity so that a greater proportion of the marks goes on synoptic assessments, and cutting the endless repeats that have been allowed of modules. Having universities more involved in developing syllabuses could also hekp raise standards. However, there is a danger in trying simply to recreate A levels as they were. Both the Conservatives and Labour accepted the case for AS levels in the 1997 election - the idea had been accepted in 1996 by Conservative ministers after a review led by the late Ron Dearing.

Whether it is wise or necessary to scrap AS levels now is doubtful: they can be useful in offering greater breadth in sixth form studies before the specialisation in Year 13. Removing other modules doesn't require their abandonment. Moreover, A-levels represent only one part of the picture when it comes to 16-19 education. The coalition has been sniffy about Diplomas; it should reinvigorate them so that there are strong work-related course options available to young people, while strongly promoting those that have industry backing. If needs be, a stronger work experience element could be added. Equally, while keen on apprenticeships, they need greater clarity over who will deliver them at a time of substantial youth unemployment - colleges may be strongly placed to take more of the risk, particularly in partnership with small firms.

As well as strengthening A levels, ministers should make it easier for schools to offer the International Baccalaureate, a rigorous qualification that doesn't require the narrow specialisation of A-leveks from academically able students. And while it may be right to increase the synoptic element of A levels, they should retain the idea of a long essay or project as part of an A level student's portfolio: that is where real 'deep thought' is likely to shine through. It is important that there is a rounded approach to 16-19 education that addresses the needs of all young people.

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