Education: That is so unfair - the gap generation needs more help

Teenagers who get low or no GCSEs are inadequately met in their educational and vocational needs and government ministers have been very slow in catching up.
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The Independent Online
How many teenagers do you know who have a longer attention span and more self-motivation than most adults? My answer is: "Not many". However, to look at recent government thinking about future qualifications for adults and teenagers, you may think they have a rather different view.

There has been a minor revolution in government thinking about the flexibility of education and training for adults. The most significant proposals came in "The Learning Age", the now famous Green Paper on lifelong learning that promised a new learning culture for adults in Britain.

However, much-needed vision and reform do not seem to have spilled over into thinking about qualifications for 16-to-19-year-olds. Ministers' recent thinking on the future of post-16 qualifications could be seen by some as backward-looking.

For teenagers who have successfully completed their GCSEs, the Government still prescribes what is legitimate for them to learn and the manner in which they should learn it. Whole qualifications are the requirement and the smallest is an AS-level which, along with other advanced level programmes, should normally be completed within two years.

Some progress has been made in making these qualifications more accessible. The Government has agreed to bring the design of A-levels and General National Vocational Qualifications into closer alignment and the two-part A-level and the single and part GNVQs are a welcome step forward. This will allow young people to mix qualifications with key skills, although I suspect this may mean nothing more than offering teenagers a greater range of subjects.

Teenagers often complain that their parents are out of touch: "It's so unfair," as Harry Enfield's Kevin puts it. Policy-makers could be accused of the same thing. They have a tendency to believe that most 16-to-19- year-olds are studying advanced level qualifications and that their main aim is higher education, a belief that could be in danger of creating a lost generation, particularly of boys.

In 1996/97 there were more than 300,000 people under the age of 19 enrolled in courses at colleges that were not at advanced level. There has been a limited political focus on the courses that these teenagers study. We do not have enough information about those who get low or no GCSEs.

Different policy approaches for 16-to-19-year-olds and adults have created a paradox. "The Learning Age" proposes exciting moves in education and training for adults (people aged 19 or over, according to the DfEE). It aims to entice adults back into learning with flexible opportunities such as the University for Industry. The Green Paper recognises that adults returning to learning want to take small steps, but teenagers are still faced with an approach to knowledge and skills development which reflects the single-subject dominance of the past.

Another quandary comes from what we do know about teenagers who get low GCSE grades. We know that many are entitled to free school meals. Achievement among families on low incomes is lower not because of innate ability, but because expectations may be lower - their children may need nurturing before they can take part in the new lifelong learning culture.

Teenagers are suspended uncomfortably between the compulsory childhood curriculum and the adult learning market. Under current government thinking, they will - on the whole - be excluded from the new, exciting flexible education and training opportunities offered to adults: a curious position.

A recent Royal Society of Arts report, "Redefining Work", called for a rethink of the curriculum away from one based on subjects to one based on skills and competences. This would mean that teenagers could enjoy a broad curriculum which would involve work-based training. It would provide young people with a curriculum related to the world of work, to ensure that education remained meaningful beyond the age of 16.

There's something else going on among 16-to-19-year-olds. There is growing evidence that full- or part-time work is the norm, not the exception, among this age group - anyone with a teenager in their household will know the price of the latest trainers! This is beginning to be cited as affecting exam results, and is bound to begin to have an impact on completion patterns.

The Government has actively encouraged a system in which university students work to pay their way, but this is not the desired policy for other 16-to-19-year-olds. Whether the motivation is financial, consumer pressure or the attractions of a more adult world is unclear, but we need to know more. Otherwise, we are in danger of designing the curriculum for 16-to-19-year-olds around young people who no longer exist. One challenge is to decide what kind of curriculum all teenagers really need. A central issue is whether curriculums should revolve around qualifications, or whether teenagers learn things that are valid, but lie outside current qualifications.

A curriculum for future teenagers could include an academic or vocational core at advanced level, or a core of key skills, personal development, guidance and counselling, as well as opportunities to broaden horizons through interests such as sport and the performing arts. And, importantly, should this be an entitlement that is funded?

If we are to create a culture of lifelong learning, we must think about the purpose and nature of the education and training we offer all our young people. In the current economic climate, we desperately need to create a flexible workforce with the skills and knowledge that employers want.

It is important to question whether the current education and training we offer meets this need. At the same time, some attention should be paid to young people who do not achieve good grades at GCSE. We need to consider what intermediate and foundation-level curriculum we should offer. After all, young people could benefit from some of the flexibility and innovations laid down in "The Learning Age".

The writer is head of curriculum and qualifications at the Further Education Development Agency

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