Sir Ron's occupational hazards

The vision of vocational A-levels is laudable, but is it realistic? Judith Judd reports
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An A-level in Leisure and Tourism deserves the same respect as an A-level in Latin or Physics. That is the revolutionary vision of Sir Ron Dearing, the Government's chief adviser on exams.

Sir Ron announced last week that he was renaming advanced vocational qualifications such as Leisure and Tourism and Manufacturing "applied A-levels", and including all qualifications on a new national certificate. His aim is "parity of esteem" for the vocational and the academic. For a society that reveres thinking above doing, this is difficult stuff. Sir Ron is inviting people to consider whether they value a lawyer more than a builder, a scientist more than a plumber.

He has other radical ideas. He expects students to mix academic and vocational courses. He hopes for big changes even for those who keep to traditional academic paths. Instead of doing two or three subjects as at present, he hopes they will do five for a year.

The vision, however, is one thing. The reality is quite another. To talk of the most far-reaching changes in post-16 education for 40 years, as some observers have done, is nonsense.

As Conservative MPs from all wings of the party rose in the Commons last week to congratulate Sir Ron, it was clear that the preservation of the status quo was secure.

Sir Ron has trodden a characteristically skilful path between those on the right who deplore any change to post-16 exams and schools which would like a continental-style broad, sixth-form curriculum. Most of the teacher lobbies, soothed by the listening Sir Ron, are reasonably happy. Yet they are undoubtedly the losers.

That is not Sir Ron's fault. For 30 years, educationists and politicians have argued about how best to broaden the sixth-form curriculum and how best to end the high drop-out and failure rate for A-level. A succession of proposals has either been tried and failed or has been proposed and never tried.

The last attempt was in 1988, when a committee under Professor Gordon Higginson proposed a five-subject A-level. Margaret Thatcher vetoed the plan, arguing that it would dilute the "gold standard" of A-level.

Sir Ron began his current review hedged about by restrictions. Both the Prime Minister and Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, insisted that the rigour of A-levels must not be compromised.

The result is a compromise that falls a long way short of implementing his vision. While A-levels remain, very little will change.

There is nothing compulsory about the new package. Students who want to carry on doing two or three A-levels will still be able to do so. The national diploma, the main way of bringing together different types of qualification, will not be required for admission to university.

No one will have to take the new Advanced Subsidiary exams designed to broaden the sixth-form curriculum, any more than they had to take its predecessor, the Advanced Supplementary, which proved such a flop.

And the fact that GNVQs are called applied A-levels is unlikely to make them more attractive to the children of aspiring parents who have been conditioned to think that the way to the top in Britain is through academic, not vocational, qualifications.

Universities welcomed Advanced Supplementary levels, but many admissions tutors continued to want people with three old-fashioned A-levels. They have proved equally sceptical about GNVQs. Despite vice-chancellors' rhetoric about breadth and improving access, there is no sign that the national diploma and the Advanced Subsidiary will fare better in the university entrance race.

There will be some changes. Schools are more enthusiastic about the new AS-levels than they were about the old. The new exam should fit more easily into the timetable and will provide a much-needed qualification for the thousands who drop out of A-level courses which are too difficult for them.

The tougher outside checks on vocational qualifications should improve their credibility, though there will still be a big gap between assessment methods for vocational courses and A-level.

There are, however, no fundamental changes. The idea that Sir Ron has transformed post-16 education is an illusion.