Raising the graduation game for all

A graduation certificate for school leavers would recognise more than exams. But should we go further?
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The Independent Online

The main aims behind the current reform of post-16 qualifications are to widen participation, help young people to study more effectively, and raise standards of achievement. A key part of the strategy is nudging young people into broader, fuller, programmes of study. There are signs that the reforms are beginning to bite. From September, most students will also be following, alongside their A-levels, one of the new Advanced Subsidiary (AS) or smaller-sized vocational A-level qualifications, together with a new qualification in the key skills of communication, number and information technology.

The main aims behind the current reform of post-16 qualifications are to widen participation, help young people to study more effectively, and raise standards of achievement. A key part of the strategy is nudging young people into broader, fuller, programmes of study. There are signs that the reforms are beginning to bite. From September, most students will also be following, alongside their A-levels, one of the new Advanced Subsidiary (AS) or smaller-sized vocational A-level qualifications, together with a new qualification in the key skills of communication, number and information technology.

But the push for breadth does not just mean more qualifications; nor is it confined to post-16 students following advanced programmes of study. A report last summer from the Government's Social Exclusion Unit drew attention to the needs of the 9 per cent of young people who at any one time are outside education, training or work, and recommended the introduction of a "graduation" certificate to recognise their achievements in a wide range of areas and provide them with an incentive to carry on learning.

An extensive national consultation on this idea, led by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and targeted in particular on young people themselves and on employers, is about to begin.

The proposed "graduation" certificate will be available around the age of 19 and require achievement both in national qualifications, including key skills, and in areas of more informal learning, such as community involvement, sport and the arts.

Key issues for consultation are the range and level of qualifications that will need to be achieved - the current idea is for a threshold of five GCSE passes at A*-C grades, or their vocational equivalent - and what should count in terms of wider achievements and how these should be accredited.

We are also exploring possible ways of recognising partial achievement of young people, and alternative routes to graduation for adults.

"Graduation" at GCSE, or equivalent GNVQ or NVQ, level is likely to have greater status if accompanied by arrangements for "graduation" at a higher level. We are also therefore consulting on the idea of a "graduation" certificate achieved around the age of 19, by young people following programmes of study at A-level or its vocational and occupational equivalents.

This immediately brings back into the public arena the idea of an overarching diploma at age 18-19. The last time this got a major airing was following the Dearing review of qualifications in 1996. The proposal then was for an optional diploma. It was decided, for good reasons, not to take the idea forward in the short to medium term, but to continue to explore its possibilities while monitoring the extent to which the reformed A-levels and vocational A-levels will provide additional breadth by a different route. A compulsory diploma would always be difficult to establish in a country where students are used to choosing what to study at the age of 16.

This is why it is important that our consultation on optional "graduation" arrangements is so wide-ranging. It is crucial to know how the market is likely to respond. Universities and employers have generally been supportive of increased breadth in 16-19 education, but will they actually reflect this in their recruitment policies?

Though the most important lever, the market is not the only one. A major reason why sixth-form and further education colleges may well be pushing ahead faster than schools on broadening their post-16 programmes is because the funding regime pushes them in that direction.

Funding is also the lever that ensures that apprenticeship programmes provide a preparation for work broader than the immediate requirements of particular employers or sectors - a lever that David Blunkett intends to use even more vigorously in his recently announced plans to strengthen the status of the work-based route. Schools at the moment are not subject to such a lever; whether or not they should be will be one of the most interesting and controversial issues facing the new Learning and Skills Council.

In the week in which the Chancellor has signalled the government's commitment to the full participation of 16-19 year-olds in education and training, it is good to be having a debate once again about the overall purposes of the 16-19 curriculum. In the absence of a post-16 national curriculum, this is something that is easily overlooked. Issues about the structure of post-16 provision are crucial, but at the end of the day, what really matters is the content of a young person's programme and the incentives to provide and complete it.

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