14-19 Education: Ten years New Labour

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Martin Allen

NUT   Teacher to Teacher   supplement  Autumn 2009                                                                                                                        

New Labour has devoted considerable time and resources to reforming  the 14-19 curriculum. It’s almost a decade since ‘Curriculum 2000’ when A-levels were reinvented – divided into AS and A2- and  GNVQs   were rebranded  -first   as   ‘vocational’  and then ‘applied’  A-levels  and GCSEs.   Since then,  A levels and GCSEs have been changed  further with new syllabuses starting last September;  although changes in  core GCSE subjects –English, maths and ICT will be delayed until 2010, so as to allow ‘functional skills’, currently being piloted,  to be incorporated.

As if all this hasn’t been enough, in  September 2008, 12000 students enrolled on the first batch of the new   specialist 14-19 diplomas, potentially the most significant change to the secondary curriculum since the 1944 Education Act.  Despite millions of pounds being spent on course design and promotion  materials, based on the 2008 experience, enrolment for the diploma is well down on what the government hoped and  only about  2000 of the enrolments are at  level 3 the level equivalent to A-level. Neither has government been able to get employers properly involved. The new diplomas would, government argued in its 14-19 White Paper, ‘put employers in the driving seat’ yet in the end, syllabuses have been largely drawn up by consultants. The take up for the next  batch of diplomas this September will be crucial in determining their success or failure.

For large numbers of secondary school teachers, sixth form college and further education staff, there has been a conveyor belt of change, increased workloads, but also trepidation about what else might be round the corner.  Practitioners have been   largely excluded from the decision making about changes to the curriculum; yet at the same time have been expected to be at the cutting edge in delivering  them .

Many of the  initiatives have been justified in terms of the need to ‘modernise’ education to keep up with economic changes,  but with the economy experiencing the biggest recession for 80 years and Labour languishing in the opinion polls; how should we assess the success or otherwise of a decade of reforms?   

One thing is clear, despite the repackaging and the renaming of courses, government has not been able to raise the status of vocational education.  Entries for the applied courses continue to be well below those for the   ‘academic’ versions of the same subjects   – candidate numbers for the ‘double’ award  in Business Studies, the most popular of the applied  subjects being barely  a tenth of those for the GCE  course.  They are  also well down on what they used to be for the old GNVQs -total entries for advanced level applied qualifications being about a third of those for GNVQ.

Many  practitioners consider that the applied versions do not have enough practical learning and that the assessment is too similar to that in GCSEs and A-levels, thus alienating the very students ‘vocational’ courses  continue to  attract – those with lower performance levels at GCSE.  As a result, large numbers of schools and colleges have returned to   BTEC style ‘National’ courses which continue to be based on coursework. 

Few of the changes to 14-19 education represent a step towards  a common ‘comprehensive’ curriculum for young people in the upper secondary age group:  a vision outlined in the National Union of Teachers proposals for a general diploma for everybody   and by the Tomlinson working party’s   call for an overarching certificate  gradually subsuming  existing academic and vocational qualifications.

If the reform of 14-19 education has been disappointing, further storm clouds are emerging on the horizon as Independent Schools, claiming that increases in performance levels mean  that A-levels must be getting ‘easier’, begin to provide  alternative qualifications like the Cambridge Exams ‘Pre-U’. Though  some Independents  have continued to offer the International  Baccalaureate as an alternative to A-levels, the Pre-U  is much more of a direct competitor as it is available in individual subjects – a type of ‘super A-level’. 

Even if there is nothing to stop state schools offering the new qualification, few comprehensives will have the resources or the student numbers to make this a viable proposition. With the strong possibility of a fee hike by some of the top universities, quick to endorse the Pre –U, but hesitant about the diploma, a new ‘upper track’ could also emerge, dampening Labour’s legacy still further. This fragmentation of post-16 provision will make it more or less impossible to usher in the sort of reforms envisaged by Tomlinson and the NUT.

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