GCE ‘A’ levels curriculum
Other similar European curriculum (amalgam of the various countries approaches)
Small number of subjects typically four or less studied in depth
More subjects typically five or more studied in less depth
Free choice of subjects by students
Less student choice constrained by compulsory core subjects
No criteria for an overall curriculum
Overall criteria given what constituents a curriculum
Emphasis on end of course external examination
A variety of assessment approaches e.g. teacher assessment, written exams etc.
No relationship between subjects
Some subjects require a theory of knowledge element
Schools and colleges responsible for the whole curriculum
Examination requirements and national regulations determine and define the whole curriculum
No automatic right to enter Higher Education –admission depends on grades
Automatic right (legal) to enter university in most countries if examination is passed
Reliability of results dependent on the independence of examination boards
Reliability dependent on state examinations or trust in teachers e.g. Germany and Sweden
Examinations can be a mix of linear and modular syllabuses
Modular syllabuses non-existent
At this time of unprecedented change in the nature of the world of work and the transformations that are occurring in the profile of employment, guidance for people to decide on their education, training and employment is even more critical than ever. This is particularly important for technical and vocational subjects in order to help dispel some of the negative attitudes towards these important subjects and also improve their image in the eyes of people especially the young. Educational and training Institutions must develop comprehensive and effective guidance systems to open up access, increase and widen participation, improve retention and produce individuals who will match the employment needs of the country. People, whether preparing to enter employment or those already in work who may be considering a career change, require support to make the correct decisions and as a result be more effective employees. Unfortunately for too long guidance has been treated as a bolt-on and even optional but it must now be fully integrated into the mainstream curriculum offered by education and training providers. It must become central at entry, on-programme and exit stages of provision in schools, colleges and training providers. If resources permit providers should establish a central guidance unit or for small scale institutions guidance resources of the other agencies should be used.
Guidance and careers guidance is a complex process and both require a clear definition and must include these important elements and be:
· Impartial and student/client centred
· Unbiased and without pressure from employers and education and training providers
· Take full account of factors affecting and impacting on existing and future labour market information
· Equally accessible to all students and people in general seeking advice
· Promote equality of opportunity for all seeking advice and guidance
· Developed and delivered by skilled and experienced staff who follow an agreed code of practice.
A multitude of activities are involved in such guidance including:
Advising, Advocating, Assessing, Counselling, Enabling, Feeding back, Informing, Innovating/systems change, Managing, Networking and Teaching
The two lists above should provide the elements and characteristics to define the code of practice for guidance that institutions must produce. The guidance process must be integrated into the curriculum at all stages of education and training and effective and on-going cooperation must exist between the guidance and teaching staff.
Open, impartial and continuous guidance
Guidance must be operated on an honest brokership basis. It is essential that it is unbiased and objective, based on the real needs of the individual, not the institutions. These elements are becoming even more important as colleges, training providers and adult education/lifelong learning centres increase the numbers of mature students who will require guidance especially at the diagnostic/ entry stage. With the continuing problems of functional illiteracy and innumeracy in this country initial diagnostic techniques and the guidance process must be sympathetic and understanding of the needs of the learners. The education and training providers must establish an on-going guidance service throughout the learners’ programmes. Quite often learners realise that they are on the wrong course or begin to struggle with their studies and therefore require addition learning support and continuing guidance. This will require that the initial guidance is complemented by more specialised guidance provision either from the institution or from outside guidance agencies. Therefore it is essential that the institutional central guidance services, if they exist, establish an effective wide ranging network including subject teachers, employers and other guidance professionals. This model of complementarity will make certain that the learners continually receive objective guidance that will provide the necessary checks and balances in the system e.g. if the learner is struggling with their studies or is unhappy with the provision.
The need for open and unbiased guidance is a result of a number of complex and interrelated factors. These include: non-existent, ineffective or ill-informed guidance in schools, colleges, universities or other guidance services; parental pressure which is often determined by the false perception that ‘A’ levels and ‘GCSEs’ are superior to other technical and vocational qualifications; peer influences and sadly often ill-informed advice from teachers who have limited direct experience of working in industry, commerce or employment areas outside the rather narrow academic world. The added challenge for technical and many vocational subjects is the negative image that they possess as evidenced in the history of technical and commercial education and training.
Guidance is a profession and vocation in its own right and requires specialised training and the role of guidance staff is to complement teachers to provide a high quality holistic service to all learners. After all there is no point in increasing and widening participation if as a result of poor guidance retention rates decline and failure rates increase. Surveys over many years conducted across Europe have shown that up to 10% students feel they are on the wrong course. Unfortunately many students who feel they are on the wrong course often cannot transfer, either because of the lack of an appropriate alternative or the rigid time constraints of the course scheduling or even more worrying the pressure put on them by the teacher/lecturer. The need to maintain class viability often means that students are made to remain on the course with the resultant low retention rates or failure. In order to improve the participation in technical and vocational subject’s effective guidance, advice and information systems must be introduced across the education and training sectors as a matter of urgency. This will hopefully improve the overall image of these subjects and dispel many of the misconceptions of these strategically important subjects.
Part 2 will continue to raise issues associated with this important topic.
Part 2 continues to reinforce the importance of guidance in education and training especially during the current recession and for technical and vocational subjects. Some key factors that need to be considered when formulating a policy include the following:
As usual, resources whether human, physical and financial will play an important part in developing and implementing a more effective strategy. One of the key challenges is to realise value for money for the service and economy of scale. This is a fact that has to be addressed particularly during a period of financial austerity and massive cuts that education and training budgets are now experiencing. One critical issue that must be considered is the number and proportion of specialist and non-specialist guidance advisers involved both within education/training institutions and in other agencies. Professionally qualified specialist advisers will need to move between the various education and training centres to support the staff based within schools, colleges and training providers. Clearly team working and cross departmental cooperation will be even more essential for the operation of a successful and cost effective service in order to maximise the expertise. The reforms over the past few years have not been particularly successful e.g. Connections and the focusing on specific age groups and an urgent and major set of reform s are long overdue.
Labour Market Intelligence (LMI)
Critical to this is that there must be a comprehensive, up to date labour market intelligence system that identifies and informs education and training providers as accurately as possible the current and future needs of employers. (See other articles on this website). The issues associated with the supply and demand equation of appropriately skilled labour are both challenging and complex but must be managed in an economic, effective and efficient manner (the 3 E’s). The critical factor is how one achieves the balance of the supply and demand equation and any guidance system must be fully aware of the needs of the employers currently and in the future and crucially what the government’s employment intentions are. This is particularly important when inward investment developments are being explored by the government. Effective partnerships and ongoing communications are essential between the guidance service, the government and its relevant departments, employers and education and training providers. New employment opportunities and structures and industries/occupations are appearing rapidly and challenge traditional assumptions about career choices and ways of operating information, guidance and advice systems. The nature and patterns of work for individuals are changing rapidly and more so in the current volatile global financial climate. This will require well informed guidance professionals who are aware of these external transitions who can provide impartial information, advice and guidance. People are likely to have more jobs over a lifetime i.e. to have a portfolio work style and equally importantly people have to be more flexible and realistic in their career aspirations. Knowledge and skill bases are expanding and developing at an exponential rate and in some industries the knowledge half life is now six months. The future profile of employment will comprise the so-called knowledge economy and a mix of essential traditional industries and the challenge is to achieve a realistic balance between these two that reflects the needs and aspirations of the islands. This country must create an economy that requires a wide range of competences, skills and knowledge bases. The qualifications offered by education and training centres must match and provide these skills etc. Equally importantly the providers must prepare their learners to enter employment by offering impartial, relevant and up to date guidance, advice and information.
The Guidance Process and Lifelong Learning
Impartial and well informed guidance is essential as part 1 identified and the lack of information about education and training opportunities and not knowing what is available and what the benefits are must be addressed through universal access to impartial and comprehensive information, guidance, support and advice. Information about the potential education, training and employment opportunities is essential but even this may not be enough. People need to learn but sadly a number are reluctant to engage in learning. One solution is to stimulate demand for lifelong learning as well as reviewing and reforming the current ways of supply; focusing on the possible barriers to learning and remove these in order to motivate people to learn.
After all lifelong learning has to compete for people’s time and attention. The labour market tends to reward higher levels of knowledge and skills, so there is a personal financial incentive, as well as the reward of business performance and growth. The employment profile for the country is still changing and it is imperative that it achieves that difficult balance across and between a range of competences and skills that will be required in future employment. Education and training providers must offer programmes that prepare learners of all ages to enter these new and emerging occupational areas ensuring they are more fully informed of the nature of their chosen employment. The guidance process must also stress the importance of continuing professional development in order to create a culture of lifelong learning.
One other important factor in addition to the information, guidance and advice giving is that a number of people will require support with their literacy, computer and numeracy skills i.e. basic skills. Education and training providers will have such facilities that could be used by the wider community using a referral system from the guidance advisers. These days basic and employability skills coupled with specific specialised skills are becoming essential in preparing a well educated/trained workforce for the future.
If resources allow programmes of work experience/placement are invaluable enhancements in the curriculum for employment preparation particularly for post-16 students. This is particularly true whether or not the learners have focused or unfocused career intentions. Many people often have unrealistic attitudes towards particular occupations and a period of work experience/placement can help confirm or refute that intention.
One of the real challenges of developing a comprehensive guidance system is managing the heterogeneous populations requiring guidance whether young or adult and particularly those with specific/special needs.
In order to maintain high quality guidance systems which engenders confidence and respect among users regular monitoring and inspection regimes will need to be developed. In order to recognise the importance of guidance within education and training the staff involved will need to be supported by programmes of CPD and accepted as equals in what will become an even more important activity. The development of a guidance system is a very challenging task but an essential one if the economy of this country is to thrive and compete with other countries.
To develop and maintain a guidance process is both a very difficult and challenging task as it is different from formal teaching and learning* but if an effective, impartial, open and objective system is established it pays dividends for both the learner, the institution, employer and ultimately the country.
· See the elements in part 1 that differentiates and defines the guidance process from teaching formal subjects.
How effective are current labour market research methods in identifying skills gaps and shortages? And how good are the statistical models used to illustrate the shape and nature of employment profiles in the future?
Above are two key questions particularly in the current recession that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Providers of education and training are looking to improve their prediction and monitoring techniques. Labour Market Intelligence (LMI) is the foundation upon which much of their planning and subsequent provision is based. What programmes should be developed and offered in the future and how best can the supply and demand equation be balanced more effectively? LMI also has a significant influence on government policy and expenditure on critical areas of education and training.
The problem is that globalisation – including the free flow of labour inside an enlarged European Union – brings about massive transformations and unforeseen consequences. Here are just a few of the more obvious transformations in the global economy and labour force:
· Demographic asymmetry – an aging workforce and lower birth rates in many industrialised developed nations compared with the developing nations that have higher birth rates and proportionally younger workforce.
· Changing work profiles – multiple careers throughout people’s working lives coupled with different modes of working, e.g. part-time and home based.
· Increased world–wide mobility of the work force.
· Accelerating scientific and technological discovery and innovation.
· Resourcing–the impact of changing cycles of outsourcing, as companies pursue cheaper or more efficient labour markets.
· Changes in company structures – resulting from mergers and acquisitions and leading to more complex human resource legislation and regulation.
· Increasing influence of multinational corporations and enterprises.
Inevitably the global labour market is becoming ever more volatile as well. In such a complex environment, more effective statistical techniques and modelling methods are urgently required. New measurement instruments and data bases are needed, which can more effectively identify, match and articulate with the emergent global trading and economic landscape. More relevant information, focussed more sharply on cross-occupational sectors in order to illuminate and inform business and political policy making and this in turn informs educational and training providers.
Problems caused by the current state of market research include the following elements:
· Inadequate knowledge of what competences, skills and knowledge will be required in the future.
· Inability to monitor and identify the knowledge half-life of key disciplines, especially those where the pace of innovation is especially rapid e.g. ICT.
· A resultant mismatch between the products of education and training and the needs of the employers.
· A growing inability to achieve a balance in the supply and demand equation.
Some statisticians argue that current approaches to labour market data and the subsequent analysis represents a classic case of measurement without knowledge. Paolo Garonna, a former Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, observed: “measurement gaps and the lack of quality data are the main obstacles to shedding light on the crucial set of relationships between the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge and labour market performance.” It is an intriguing paradox that we have more data from a wider range of disparate and disconnected sources than ever before – but this does not necessarily provide more reliable, valid and meaningful information. More accurate and accessible statistics and information are necessary to provide useful labour market intelligence within the global context.
Recent surveys and reports highlighting current and future skills gaps and shortages in the country still seem to be using the more traditional statistical techniques. Bearing in mind the less than impressive results from work-force planning in the past e.g. numbers of teachers, doctors, plumbers etc, does this not suggest that – in the UK at least – we currently lack the tools to predict future labour market needs? And how will this affect the ability of our education and training system to rise to the challenges and match the needs of employers and produce a workforce that will compete more successfully in the global economy.
A final point and a wider set of questions
What does growth mean for a particular country? What is the relationship/balance between domestic needs and export/international trade? Is chasing growth one of the sources of our current worldwide woes? What implications do these and other questions have for LMI?
Maybe another article?
Should scientists and technologists become more involved in policy making and/or as socio-political influencers and if so what are the resultant responsibilities of educational providers, whether in schools, colleges or universities?
The role and the influence of scientists and technologists in formulating national policy has never been more important. The scientific and technological dimensions are but two of a number of wider ranges of complex and interacting dimensions associated with the financial/political/social domain. With the increasing concerns about the long-term consequences of scientific and technological developments on the global environment and people’s lives in general, there is a need to achieve an effective balance between science/technology policy and the wider domains.
Increasingly the concept of a nation state is declining as a focus of power, being largely usurped by the growth and influence of multinational companies and corporations and the resultant global economies. There is a breakdown in the traditional paradigms for the way government and societies operate and function. This is, in part, a product of increasing disenchantment with party political representation and the resultant emergence of the power of factional interest groups and single-issue pressure groups, together with market, competition and profit values which downgrade public ownership and responsibility. These undoubtedly question traditionally understood forms of democracy and other political philosophies.
Science and technology already dominate what people take for granted in their lives and it is important that scientists and technologists recognise and accept more fully their responsibilities for these realities both as policy makers/influencers and as citizens. Scientific and technological influences will in future, have even greater prominence in daily life and in the products and services which will be in demand worldwide.
Science education, in terms of its process and content, must be reviewed and planned, so that people are better prepared for involvement in a science and technology-based workforce, or for a more informed understanding about their applications in society. A more scientifically and technologically literate society and workforce must be central in lifelong learning and a learning society.
There is a common perception that science and technology is damaging to the environment and the people’s way of life. This can create a negative and hostile view of science which manifests itself, at worst, in indifference and passivity towards the subject, or a view that it is elitist and closed. Among the sceptics are many who are interested in environmental issues but distrust the physical sciences, which they perceive to have damaged the environment and lowered the quality of life.
Products and services which people take for granted are increasingly based on science and technology, but paradoxically people do not wish to see or understand the production processes that are associated with these, often viewing them as damaging to the environment. The growth in the various lobbyists and factional groups is a symptom of how many people feel about science and technology. Some recent examples highlighted these issues, namely, the BP oil leak and deep sea drilling for oil, the reliability of data about global warming, the further development of growing GM foods, the dangers of microwave radiation from mobile phones and masts and the possible use of nano-technologies and three dimensional printing etc.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of these issues, one is still left with an overwhelming sense of confusion and uncertainty about the impact of these scientific and technological developments. People must surely be able to analyse and balance all the apparently contradictory information and evidence in order to form a view about the relative merits of such developments. Education and training must play a vital role in informing judgements.
The exploitation of radiation in its medical and military uses is a classic example of the closed and mysterious activities of science and technology. The extent of the misuse of radiation, especially in the development of nuclear weapons, is only just emerging. Notwithstanding the inevitable political and nationalistic imperatives of the times, the distortion of the uses of science and technology makes scientists the architects of mass destruction in society’s view.
Even with the development of radiation diagnostic techniques in medicine, particularly with x-rays, there is now evidence of early ignorance of its dangers, both by scientists and operators. In order not to repeat these mistakes, and to help dispel the negative perception of science, scientific and technolological issues must be more openly discussed and be central to educational content and process, both at the compulsory and post-compulsory stages.
The current concerns associated with, say, global warming, and pollution, peaceful use of nuclear energy, genetic engineering, mobile phone technologies and nano-technologies, require acceptable solutions, whether based on scientific, moral, economic or political grounds. This will only be possible with a more scientifically and technologically literate society, with more open debate between the scientists, decision makers and members of society in general. The Nobel Prize to Professor Rotblat highlights the need for interest groups, which work over many years involving a number of informed and influential social and physical scientists.
Lifelong learning and training, including continuing science education, must become consonant with technological, economic, political and societal change and, it could be argued, should even move in advance of public understanding of all these and other elements of change.
In the past, the passivity of science has largely developed a reactive stance by people. If, in the future, people wish to influence the consequences of science and technology, whether known or yet to be demonstrated, there needs to be a culture of pro-activity. The growth of well informed factional interest and ‘single issue’ groups, with the resultant enhanced enablement of the individual, could help develop this pro-activity. There are some real dangers with such developments and there needs to be a sensible balance between the long-term benefits to society and the views of the factional groups. The lobbyists will raise important and legitimate concerns about scientific and technological developments. However, they actually could impede important, strategic and beneficial advances. A more informed populace, which is more self critical about consumer needs, could bring about more effective and acceptable changes associated with the consultation and planning phases.
Practicing scientists/technologists must be key players in policy formulation, as science contributes to many elements of current and future policy. Science sees itself as being objective and deterministic. It should and can moderate policy. The right questions need to be raised. The key is how they should be framed within the wider social/political/financial domains. Should scientists and technologists be ‘on top’ or ‘on tap’ andhow should this be managed within the strategic partnership that will finally articulate and form the policy?
There is a major challenge ahead for teachers and institutions to find ways to produce a more scientifically and technological literate society, which can be more aware of the possible consequences of scientific and technologic advances and developments. Equally important is preparation of front-line scientists/technologists to network among and beyond themselves. They need become more ‘aware’ of the possible consequences of their discoveries and their resultant productions and help society to understand the implications clearly. In addition they must be good communicators and manage public relations to a high order.
The crude oppositional approach to debates over vocational education and training and academic education has been a long and largely unproductive one in the UK. Many reports and government publications over the decades have advocated the recognition of the equal value of vocational education and training both within the Further and Higher Education sectors. Successive governments have talked about bringing a greater occupational focus into degree programmes but with little lasting effect.
Periodically during their terms of office successive governments appear to rediscover the importance of vocational education particularly at the higher education level and then attempt to create a number of initiatives to raise the profile of this critically important matter within the education and training landscape. The introduction of foundation degrees, graduate apprenticeships, half baked attempts to emphasise the importance of work based learning, the introduction of the so-called employability agenda and personal and social skills into degree programmes have been a few recent examples. Personal and social skills have been long been advocated by employers.
One effective approach to improving the awareness of the work place has been the placement of students into employment during their degree programmes and a number of models have been tried including sandwich courses (thin and thick) and work shadowing. Sadly sandwich programmes have declined significantly since the 1960s. These programmes provided students with real work placements of varying durations. In addition some universities and employers have developed internships but again these, particularly in the current recession, have been curtailed but with an increased tendency for the employers to require payment from the students for the opportunity. Programmes of work experience/placement add value to a student’s education and better prepare them for work. Research has shown that students who have been on such programmes gain higher classifications in their degrees, obtain employment more quickly than those students who do not undertake work experience. However too often students want to complete their degrees as quickly as possible because of the current student loan regime and the majority of universities have been reluctant to operate the work placement programmes because of added cost and administration burdens. The former polytechnics are often the exception and compared with the older universities have continued the programmes, many working with the CGLI Senior Awards that recognise the work placement. Overall the HE sector does not fully recognise the need or value in vocationalising degree programmes.
A Bit of History
It might be of value to refresh our memories with a little history of higher education vocational awards (for more detail see the history of technical education on this website). Ever since the Great Exhibition (1851) and the Paris Exhibition (1867) it became clear that Britain was losing its supremacy in manufacturing and began its long period of relative decline in regard to international competitiveness and productivity with other countries. Innumerable Royal Commissions and other reports stressed and highlighted the urgent need to improve education and training at all levels of the educational system particularly of technical and vocational programmes at the higher levels. A number of changes to the HE system have been attempted over the past few decades in order to respond to the increasing challenges from international competitors. For example in 1956 a number of institutions were designated or created to become technological and vocational in character within the HE sector. Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) were established focusing on higher levels of work and awarded Diplomas in Technology. Following the Robbins Report these ten institutions were designated university status and allowed to award degrees. In 1967 Anthony Crossland, in one of two seminal speeches, criticised universities for what he described as their lack of response to society’s needs and indicating that greater responsiveness would only come from institutions which were ‘under more direct social control’. Thus Polytechnics were created and were seen by central government as being different from universities in terms of the type of degrees awarded, the balance between teaching and research, as well as the comprehensive nature of the student population. Polytechnics were eventually became universities in 1991/2 a move criticised by a number of commentators.
At the time of their inception many of these institutions developed innovative vocational degree programmes with strong and effective links with employers. Often they included provision of sandwich placements with employers. These programmes were seen as offering realistic experiences in the workplace and were greatly valued by both students and employers. Sadly, following the decline of large parts of the manufacturing base of the UK, particularly with large employers, sandwich programmes decreased. In addition problems with student, institutional and employer finances contributed to this decline. The introduction of student loans accelerated the decline and the current proposed changes in university student funding will further exacerbate the demise of work experience programmes. A few HE institutions maintained their offer of vocationally focused programmes with work placement (mainly the former Polytechnics) but overall academic drift continued – a disease that has blighted the education system in England for centuries – reflecting the fundamental and historical hostility to the more vocationally and technically focused subjects, (with certain exceptions like accountancy, law and medicine which often carry the title vocational). In addition students often encouraged by parents opt for the more supposedly academic subjects that are perceived as offering greater security and better paid salaries. Also the funding methodologies have encouraged universities to offer provision that is popular and as a result to reduce low recruiting programmes in such subjects as engineering, construction/built environment , manufacturing and the physical sciences. This reflected a similar trend in Further Education Colleges where the funding regimes created the ‘dash for cash’ or ‘bums on seats’ approach and brought about the downsizing, closure or merging of key technical and vocational departments and faculties in colleges and universities. This brief and partial history highlights that the debate is still alive with little evidence of a long-term solution. The government response to the current recession is to propose massive cuts proposed in colleges (25%) and radical changes to student funding in HE with fees to increase possibly two or three fold. This will further decimate the technical and vocational provision just at the time the UK has to fundamentally rethink its future industrial and commercial place in the global economy and when these must surely be the subjects that could allow a successful reconfiguration. Employers still argue strongly that the majority of their graduate recruits lack experience and qualifications, which ‘gel’ with their requirements and that the recruits are not work ready. Employers have long expressed concerns about the quality of the graduates and are frustrated with university products. Many state that the universities are out of touch with the needs of business and operate in isolation from the world of work. Too often graduates have little or no understanding of the business and commercial worlds. The widely held view of employers is that there is a real gap/disconnect between the academic and business worlds – each seems to operate in separate boxes – they see the universities’ view as academic needs first followed by business needs. Many cite international practices e.g. China, Germany and US where the universities work very much more closely and effectively with employers. Employers also feel that academic staff are often not up to date with current technical and business practices and techniques. Employers quite rightly want to recruit ‘work ready’ graduates who possess real experience and understand more fully the needs of the workplace. The wider employability skills like better communication skills, dependability, integrity, Importance of working to deadlines, problem solving, reliability and team working/collaboration skills are often cited. Increasingly employers place a premium on such skills. Employers want to see business knowledge and enterprise skills. The real danger at present in the UK with the recession and the government’s austerity measures is that more poor-quality and low- skills jobs will increase and that the hoped for renaissance will not happen. Instead a weak, impoverished economy will emerge.
Perceived Primary Purpose
Universities counter these criticisms by arguing that it is not their primary purpose to prepare their students for job specific roles. Recent statements from senior university people in the media representing the Russell League/Group of universities restated this somewhat precious viewpoint, which surely harped back to the elitist and ivory tower model of Victorian higher education system. So the impression is that the traditional suspicions between education and business still persist and each continues to be wary of the other. One interesting consequence from employers to this problem is the development of in-company schemes to train recent recruits and the development of corporate universities. Also many large companies are returning to recruiting school/college students and providing either day release or in-house programmes i.e. growing their own talent where the employees learn on job the necessary skills, knowledge, understanding and competences for that particular job or professional role. Obviously it remains to be seen if the reformed apprenticeship programmes will improve the flow of properly skilled people into business and strengthen the education/training and employer links. Internships also offer some hope but recently companies have been requiring students to pay for their placement which makes this a somewhat exclusive option i.e. it allows entry to only students who have the money to pay. Also it must be noted that this development is occurring predominantly with financial services and industries.
Recent developments with Foundation Degrees and Graduate Apprenticeships promised much but still have not reached a critical mass in key subjects to have any real impact. In fact Graduate Apprentices were launched with great gusto but petered out as quickly. Foundation Degrees were a result of Tony Blair’s misplaced and misguided statement about increasing university education to 50% by 2010 which has misfired with the recent recession. Seventy graduates now chase every job vacancy and equally sadly often involving graduates with degrees in subjects not in demand or in over supplied subjects. The supply-demand equation is very unbalanced at this critical time of recession. Foundation Degrees have also undermined Higher National Certificates and Diplomas which have long been greatly valued by many employers (another example of academic drift is to attach degree to the title and think it is more important!). These forerunner awards were very much vocationally focused.
Opportunities for Work Placements
The more traditional honours degrees must surely incorporate enhanced guidance, feedback and reflection elements and high-level employability key skills into the programmes. In spite of the current recession there must be a dramatic extension in programmes of work experience, job shadowing, internships etc. Companies particularly the small and medium sized must receive some form of support and encouragement say via tax incentives to take students on such programmes.
In order to move the debate forward and to make the HE curriculum more vocationally relevant and work related the following points could be considered:
· Consolidate and build upon the undoubted benefits and value of work experience; provision needs to expand in order to achieve a critical mass and so have a greater impact
· HE institutions to develop and refine methods of recording students’ work experiences via reflective/critical diaries, portfolios, records of achievement and transcripts
· Encourage and truly value the contributions made by employers and not treat their involvement as tokenistic and cosmetic
· Develop stronger and more effective partnerships with other institutions e.g., colleges and training providers and employers
· Introduce employability skills into all degree programmes
· HE Institutions to make closer links with strategic economic planners in the process of introducing or improving curricula and programmes.
Based on an article first published in ‘t’ magazine in January 2004.
It’s all been said before, but here is my version. A number of my statements will be massively generalised but they are made to trigger further debate and discussion.
Numerous reports over many decades have focused on the ineffective state of education and training and our track-record in this area compared with our competitors. The majority of these reports focused on particular sectors of education and training e.g. secondary, further and higher education. Very few, as the main history of technical education showed, embraced the whole of the education and training spectrum. It is important on the grounds of continuity and progression that all stages are considered as part of a continuum. Too often a particular priority is given to one stage of education without careful thought of its consequences on the other stages. Lifelong learning in order to be successful must provide continuity and ease of progression for all people at whatever stage they are. Very often some of the excellent findings and recommendation of these reports were seldom recognised or implemented and the reports gathered dust on the shelves.
What this country has consistently failed to achieve since the Great Exhibition (1851) is to produce a range of suitably qualified people in sufficient numbers to work in teams with the productive and original thinking individuals and researchers. The roots of the problem may be cultural. The culture, in England particularly, is a basic hostility to science and technology and we imagine that success in life as measured by employment in other professions such as financial services, law and medicine. With respect to the people in these professions they do not actually contribute much to the manufacturing base of this country. Wealth generated by such can never fully compensate for a strong and efficient manufacturing base. Just look at the current problems caused by the recession and the highly questionable practices operated by the financial services particularly in the US and UK. (The financial services could be perceived as witchcraft and financial terrorism conducted in pin stripes!) To add insult to injury it is just these services that make money during recessions and depressions. Armies of accountants, auditors, consultants and lawyers make substantial profits from companies going into liquidation as the manufacturing base of this country further crumbles.
The educational system also contributes to this barren perception of science and technology. The system seems to equate quality with rarity and, as has been said before, the educational system is a catalogue of acculative failure. Any educational and training system must surely equate quality with fitness of purpose for all. Most people, given the right set of opportunities, can benefit from programmes of education and training at all stages of their life and then can play a more meaningful part in society and employment.
The ever- accelerating knowledge and skill base currently makes the situation even worse. It is now reckoned that the knowledge half life of an electrical engineer is less than four years and in some areas of IT less than six months. This means that there is a desperate need for lifelong learning and continuous professional development (CPD) for people in work. Successive governments have set targets for education and training attainment but enviably these have failed to be realised.
The country must break with the low- skill equilibrium and adopt once for all a high-skill, high-quality philosophy in the workplace. The current recession coupled with the severe austerity regimes being introduced by the consolation government in the UK will, I fear, perpetuate the low- skill and low-quality economy and employment profile.
In order to break away from its woefully inadequate track record, Britain needs to invest in people, both in the initial stage of education and training, but equally important, make a growing commitment to retraining, updating and up skilling already in work. People are the most valuable resource and it is important that a long-term view is taken of education and training, supporting people to cope with the information technology revolutions that are occurring. As has been said ‘it is not the robots which are the wonderful achievement, but the new and wide-ranging competence of our employees.’ Although many companies in the UK are striving to compete in the global economy the continuing skills gaps and shortages make it difficult for them to match the levels of productivity and work based qualifications of our main competitors. This fact is created by the inadequate state of technical education and training at all levels.
Engineering and Manufacturing
I would like now to focus on engineering and manufacturing, although many of the arguments bear similarities with other key subject areas e.g. the physical sciences and mathematics. Because this country still operates a largely elitist education system, much of the attention is still given to the production of graduates and those people who wish to progress on to chartered engineer status. What we have neglected is the training of technicians, operatives and craftspeople to support engineers, scientists and designers. This deficiency has been around since the Great Exhibition. For every researcher there needs to be four/five support staff, highly qualified and motivated. The area of technician and craft educational training has been woefully inadequate. Again, this might be associated with some cultural factor, that people often see these occupations/jobs as second rate.
Colleges, as the history of technical education shows, play a major role in improving the stock and flow of suitably qualified technicians and craft people. They have never been given adequate resources to achieve the required results within an operational framework based on a long-term strategy. Successive recessions have witnessed dramatic cut-backs in training. The same thing is happening in the current recession where college’s budgets are being cut up to 25%. This is opposite to what happens in many other countries where they increase investment in training/retraining. This country never seems to learn from the lessons of history. If we come out of the current recession we will still be confronted with massive skills gaps and shortages in key areas. The 1980s witnessed a massive decline in traditional manufacturing industries, and it must be said that there were examples of low productivity, over-staffing and under investment in equipment, infrastructure, capital and modern management techniques. This destruction has now reached the critical threshold that we now manufacture very little and have outsourced many of our remaining industries abroad. The country needs an efficient and viable manufacturing base in order to promote wealth. Increased global competition makes it even more essential. The prevailing view in the current recession is that the economy can be rebalanced by moving ex-public service employees and what remains of the traditional manufacturing industries into new technologies and high value occupations sadly this will not happen without major investments in retraining and up skilling. We must be able to produce products and services that the rest of the world wants to purchase. There needs to be a sensible balance between the manufacturing and service based industries and they must complement each other. The two go together and one cannot have an undue emphasis over the other – at present Britain has got the balance wrong! If we are to develop a regenerated and rebalanced manufacturing base we need to address some very fundamental issues associated with education and training.
When looks at the way companies are evolving internationally, many are down-sizing and becoming flatter and developing total quality management systems around small teams of highly qualified people. Each person within the team has a particular role and sense of the others knowledge and skill. The analogy is often used of ‘the surgeon team’ a small group of highly qualified people who can design products and services and solve problems. In addition a high level of automation must critically match the skills of the team members. There should no longer be issues of demarcation and over-staffing. There is a synergy between team members and also the teams that constitute the organisation. This culture could overcome the ongoing difficulty of attracting women into certain occupations, particularly engineering, as women are proven team workers.
The Engineering Team
This brings me to the concept of the engineering teams, to date; most emphasis has been placed on the graduate and chartered engineer. The engineering team comprises multi-skilled craftspeople, technicians, incorporated engineers and chartered engineers. In order to maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of the team, the education and training of all the members is important. Colleges must continue to develop innovative partnerships with employers and maximise wherever possible work based training through work experience, work placements etc. Colleges must also continue to establish new delivery and study methods that are more acceptable, both in terms of convenience and cost effectiveness to both parties. Apprenticeships must be further extended and their quality improved. In order to produce a more versatile engineer the E model of education and training should be adopted. The E model represents an ongoing and sensible mix of breath, balance and depth (specialisation) in the curriculum experience as opposed to the existing T model with too much early depth (specialisation). Students need to appreciate and experience first-hand the realities of engineering and manufacturing right from the beginning of their studies. This clearly requires stronger ongoing links between college study and the workplace – this reinforces the need and importance for work placement/shadowing/experience and the more formal apprenticeship programmes which are mainly work based. Opportunities for progression of the members of the engineering team must also be facilitated by the curriculum frameworks. The current qualifications framework still presents barriers to progression. The various qualifications, in spite of successive reforms, still cause difficulties for smooth progression. Greater recognition of team members experience and particular skills needs to be given by way of more enlightened use of assessment of prior achievement and learning, professional dairies and portfolios. People with CGLI qualifications still find it difficult to progress easily onto engineering technician, incorporate engineer or chartered engineering status. Similar difficulties still exist for other members wishing to progress to the next stage. The current education and training reforms will hopefully begin to resolve these long standing problems with progression and transfer. When one looks at the current qualifications and possible career routes for engineers it is reminiscent of the vessels on a gnat’s leg. It looks complex and confusing and in many cases does not offer smooth progression. One of the problems causing this confusion is still the multitude of professional bodies that represent engineering and manufacturing and the various members of the team. These bodies still seem to desire to maintain a great degree of autonomy and as a result are very protective of their territorial domains. As the world of work moves to multi-skilling and cross-skilling, it is surely important that a number of these associations and professional bodies merge and create a more unified structure to represent and support engineering and manufacturing. These professional have a long and creditable history (see biographies and pen portraits) but the time is right to reform and rationalise in order to improve the image of the disciplines. In order to create the engineering team all the interested parties must work together to eliminate unnecessary barriers that will establish an educational and training system that recognises the value of each team member and promotes a positive image of engineering and manufacturing. Once a highly qualified and motivated culture is created perhaps the country can re-establish and rebalance its economy. The country has relied on financial services, real estate and property and a disproportionately sized public services for too long and that imbalance has now to be addressed and resolved.
A different and somewhat divergent take on college management?
One of the more acceptable and helpful tenets of effective and good management and leadership is that managers should adopt a reflective and more critical stance. Continuous, systematic and careful reviews of the processes and outcomes of the business are, indeed, an invaluable and essential aid to the effective manager and leader.
Technical colleges as all educational and training institutions have much to reflect in the current climate of budget cuts and unprecedented austerity and hastily introduced government reforms to the curriculum, institutional governance and inspection regimes. The parenthesis model of management has never been more valid. The model challenges the whole of the existing thinking on organisational theory. It identifies a new type of person, namely the parenthetical person, one who reflects and reacts to the new societal circumstances facing the world. Simple definitions of inputs and outputs, as currently defined, are naive and simplistic. A Chinese proverb brilliantly reflects the need to be flexible, responsive and pragmatic namely: ‘cross rivers touch stones.’
The approach states forcefully that it is not enough merely to manage an organisation but it is necessary to attempt to manage the whole environment in which the college exists. It is essential that all managers and leaders perceive the broader societal implications of their managerial and leadership functions. Colleges are currently exposed to a very volatile environment. The education and training landscape in which they operate comprises a series of fragmented elements including funding agencies, many of which introduce policies and strategies that are contradictory and paradoxical. These impact on the institutions and require totally new forms of management and leadership skills. The continued development of market-force philosophies makes it difficult to seek sanctuary in the past. Even the awarding bodies are now operating and defining education and training in terms of hard headed businesses. As a result it often strikes me as being a classical example of Darwinism.
Historical practices and sign posts are often of little help. This is in itself is no bad thing. Many practices in education and training are still plagued by atavism so one must be prepared to accept change, development and improvement as inevitable. One, however must ask whether all changes are necessarily good for the educational/training service and are some of the changes precipitated by questionable external imperatives just bring change for changes sake e.g. examples of political short termism or political dogma?
So, during a period of reflection I explored the possible links between Darwin’s theory and current education management. Evolution theory is about progression and the imperative of the survival of the fittest and strongest. This looks a promising connection, especially in the current (free?) market forces where competition and (quasi) institutional autonomy is encouraged. Recruit more students with fewer resources, which clearly means ‘do more for less’ threaten some strategically important provision in such areas as construction, engineering and the physical sciences. Sadly these subjects along with others like mathematics and statistics continue to struggle to recruit sufficient students. One just has to read comments from employers about the lack of sufficient and properly qualified graduates in these subjects and other vocational areas of study. The often simplistic accountancy driven methodologies make it increasingly difficult for managers to protect high-cost, low recruiting programmes of studies. The funding regimes that are introduced quite rightly require gains in efficiency and effectiveness and the elimination of anarchic practices, but the regimes are not able to fully recognise certain vulnerable areas of study i.e. they lack sensitivity. It would therefore seem that we do manage a Darwinian scene and that managers must make every effort to protect threatened strategic programmes.
Just as Darwinism is about progression and advancement, in the natural world, education must be about constant improvement of the service offered to all its students whether in employment, entering employment or as citizens in general. Provision must be of the highest quality as possible and match the future requirements of life and work. The early theories/hypotheses of evolution were about long-term change and improvement: this was called ‘phylogenic gradualism’. Species coped successfully or otherwise with a whole range of external forces and adapted to these influences. It was usually about long-term developments, progression, survival and ultimately improvement.
In the light of more recent observations, data and field research a refined hypothesis has been postulated, namely ‘punctuated equilibrium.’ Distinct and discernible changes are observed, often over short time scales.
So which of these hypotheses is more valid in the current climate? Changes come thick and fast and often precipitate rapid and unforeseen mutations/consequences, so it would seem that punctuated equilibrium – or should that be ‘rapid punctuated equilibrium’? is more appropriate to the world of education and training. Where the analogy with Darwinism breaks down, or weakens, is that much of the current change in education/training is regressive, not progressive. Mass scale introduction of accountability structures and bureaucracy, much of which seeks information to a ridiculous and questionable degree of resolution diverts the colleges from their true business, namely improving access and participation of students, increasing the effectiveness of learning and teaching and increasing achievement levels. This diversion seriously affects the quality of service as the learner-staff have to respond to innumerable requests for information and become more involved in administrative tasks. Also the obsession with testing and increasingly heavily prescribed syllabuses further constraint teachers and learners even more. Leagues tables and questionable targets abound linked with obsessive and intrusive inspection and assessment regimes. Perhaps a modified version of rapid punctuated equilibrium indicating regression is a stronger case to consider?
Different sponsors/organisations require different forms of information at different times, although in many cases they are asking for the same measures. No apparent coherent or long –term strategic planning process exists between these sponsors/organisations, especially in the area of education and training. To extend the Darwinian hypothesis perhaps one could identify these sponsors/organisations as forms of predators-maybe-but that is worth a longer and separate period of reflection.
So there are a number of parallels, some strong, some weak, between education and Darwinism. The external environment can be both supportive and hostile and managers and leaders must deal with a multitude of external influences operating on short-term political agendas and policies, often in contradictory fashions.
Policy, planning and strategy determined by humans are too often driven by a range of many interconnected values e.g. political and ideological which are placed on human worth. The parenthetical manager and leader, referred to earlier, will also assert some values for the organisation and the external environment which means that the manager and leader must be aware of these values and as a result cope more effectively with change-or should it be rapid punctuated equilibrium?
Bush. T. ‘Theories of Educational Management.’ Paul Chapman. 1988.
Bush. T. (ed). ‘Managing Education Theory and Practice.’ Open University. 1989.
First published in ‘t’ magazine.
Questions continue to be raised about the teaching and learning of mathematics in schools and colleges and the relative levels of participation in the subject post-16. Questions continue to arise about its purpose and centrality in the schools national curriculum and the introduction of functional mathematics in vocational awards. In addition, concerns are being raised about the quality and quantity of students entering further and higher education to study courses that require mathematics.
We live in a technologogical society based on mathematics and science, so it is perplexing that schools, colleges and universities continue to turn out students in large numbers who not only lack adequate mathematical and numeracy skills but also the students constantly state that the subjects are boring and irrelevant. There surely needs to be a vigorous national debate, on ways to tackle this complex and multidimensional problem.
Hopefully these debates will once and for all establish a consensus about these problems with the subjects and how to resolve them. Equally importantly is the urgent need to recognise and identify the problems associated with these subjects in the workplace. Work-based mathematics and numeracy are too often overlooked and neglected when reviews are carried out. Meaningful research on mathematics and numeracy in the work place has been minimal and as a result there is a dearth of evidence and even then scant attention paid to what the real issues are.
Towards a new lexicology
This situation is partly explained by the fact that clear understandings of the factors and determinants involved in work based mathematics and numeracy have not been established. It is also essential to develop more precise definitions of the various elements involved. In any research there is a requirement that a precise lexicology is developed and adhered to. These requirements are important given the different mathematical and numerical skills and competences that exist in different work place situations e.g. health professions, process plant operations, retailing/distribution, construction crafts etc. Key questions need to be answered including:
· What mathematical and numerical skills are important in each identified work situation and how best are these identified?
· What attitudes towards numeracy and mathematics need to be developed and encouraged by employers, employees, parents and teachers?
· How best can these subjects be taught and learnt in traditional classroom situations and how important is the context in which teaching and learning takes place?
· How does the context of numeracy and mathematics in the workplace become formalised in order to bring about an identification and understanding of the kind of skills that are needed in a given setting?
In the limited research on numeracy in the workplace, the lack amongst many emplees of ‘a feeling for number’ has been highlighted as a problem. It would seem that the school curriculum particularly at primary level has paid little attention to this extremely important element and it remains to be seen if the numeracy strategy will bring about a sustained and lasting improvement. The inability to manipulate and understand the fundamental operations associated with number creates later problems irrespective of the ultimate aspiration of the learners. For example, the inability to estimate and transpose numbers and equations makes for fundamental difficulties later.
Too often in the past, reforms to the mathematics curriculum diluted these essential building blocks for numeracy skills. An illustration is given in the classic book by Jan Gullberg (1) in the following quote:
‘In the 1950s educators and reformers introduced the language of sets as a basis for mathematical studies in schools. Many pupils started studying sets before they could count the number of elements in the sets. The language of sets and the surrounding ‘New Maths’ created chaos in schools in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It was a frustrating time in education. Strange symbols were introduced for seemingly simple things: teachers had to be retrained and most parents had no idea what their children were doing in mathematics.
The concepts of set theory are simple, but they require a precision and maturity of language that is beyond the power of many learners. An idea that was meant to simplify in fact complicated matters. A dull but useful drill was replaced by a dull and useless drill. In England and many countries the New Maths created a generation with sometimes very limited arithmetic skills’
This long but helpful and insightful quotation highlights an important issue in the wider debates on work based mathematics and numeracy namely the essential need to lay the foundations of these important subjects. The relevance and fitness of purpose of the school/college mathematics content needs to match the future needs and aspirations of the learners.
This is important, as the young adults leaving these institutions will enter a wide variety of work situations and occupations that will in turn require varying degrees of numerical and mathematical skills and competences. Careful thought and analysis is needed to identify and then introduce the appropriate content at the right time into the curriculum.
The role of employers.
Clearly there are fundamental elements that all learners require to learn but with the necessary differentiations that reflect their ability and career intentions. It must be accepted that very few will study mathematics to any depth whilst the vast majority will require a basic foundation and grounding in numerical skills and mathematical techniques in order to cope with the needs of chosen occupations. The curriculum needs to be configured to recognise these demands and at the same time excite and stimulate the learners whatever their needs.
One real challenge for the curriculum reformers is the fact that the whole curriculum is by definition restrictive, arising from the necessity of including other key curriculum subjects whether in the core offer of in course options. The expectation that numerical skills and mathematical techniques taught in schools and colleges should be capable of satisfying the total needs of the learners whatever their career intention is absurd. Thecontent must be seen as relevant and be significantly informed by employers. Employers must be involved in assisting the identification of what is required in their particular work place. Sadly to date this essential element has been lacking. The primary challenge is to provide the necessary grounding to the learners both those starting work and equally important for those already in work.
The recent farce surrounding the introduction of functional mathematics again highlights that there is still a long way to go before the problems with the teaching and learning of work based mathematics and numeracy are resolved.
Let us hope there will be along and meaningful debate of this strategically important topic.
(1) Gullberg J. ‘Mathematics from the Birth of Numbers.’ Norton and Company. 1997.
The only certainty is uncertainty itself
An important, challenging and yet an intriguing question to ask is: How effective is current labour market research in identifying skills shortages and gaps and the statistical models to use to illustrate the shape and nature of employment profiles in the future? It’s an important question to ask, as it is essential to refine and enhance the statistical techniques that are used today in order to improve the predictions and monitoring of future labour market dynamics. Labour market information and data provides the foundation upon which much of a government’s planning and subsequent expenditure is based and has a significant influence on future policy and predicted expenditure on such critical areas as technical and vocational education and training.
The massive transitions and transformations occurring in the current rapidly changing global labour markets must surely require more sophisticated statistical techniques. The global labour market is becoming even more volatile as technological innovation continues to accelerate. The transitions and transformations in the global economy include:
Ø Demographic trends e.g. the increasing proportion of an aging population of workers in many industrialised nationsbecause of decline in birth rates compared with higher birth rates in many emerging economies
Ø Changing career and work profiles i.e. multiple careers throughout people’s working lives coupled with different modes of working e.g. part-time and home based working
Ø Increased world-wide mobility of the workforce
Ø Impact of changing cycles of out sourcing e.g. companies pursuing cheaper labour markets
Ø Changes in company structures resulting from mergers and acquisitions resulting in more complex human resource legislation and regulation
Ø Increasing influence of multi-national companies and enterprises.
In such a changing and increasingly complex global environment more effective statistical techniques and modelling methods are urgently required. New measurement instruments and databases, which can more effectively match, identify and articulate with this new emerging global trading and economic landscape must be developed. In addition more relevant information involving greater attention to cross-occupational sectors and international data and indicators are essential in order to illuminate and inform business and political policy making. One immediate problem here is that the large multi-national companies will be reluctant to share business sensitive information. Problems caused by the current market research could include:
Ø Inadequate knowledge of what competences, skills and knowledge will be required in the future
Ø The resultant mismatch between the products of education and training and the needs of the employers
Ø The resultant growing complexity and inability to achieve a balance in the supply and demand equation
Ø The inability to monitor and capture the knowledge half life of a number of disciplines e.g. IT
A number of statisticians (1) have argued that the current labour market approaches and subsequent analysis represents a classic case of measurement without knowledge. One such commentator, Garonna, has observed; “Measurement gaps and the lack of quality data are the main obstacles to shedding light on the crucial set of relationships between the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge and labour market performance”. One of the intriguing aspects currently is that we have more data from a wide range of disparate and disconnected sources but this does not necessarily provide more reliable, valid and meaningful information. More accurate and accessible statistics and information are necessary to inform international and national labour market intelligence within the global context.
Bearing in mind some of the earlier disasters in this country when using so- called workforce planning e.g. teachers, doctors and the trades such as plumbing, one wonders why many of the current techniques continue to be used to inform future labour markets. Recent surveys and reports highlighting current and future skills shortages in this country still seem to be using the more traditional statistical techniques. This will I fear have serious consequences for the future ability of the educational and training systems to produce a workforce that will compete in the global economy and match the needs of employers.
(1) Carlson, B, A. (2001). Education and the labour market. Serie dessarroolo,114 UN
(2) Garonna P et al, (2001). Achieving transparency in skill markets. International Labour Organisation. Milan
‘A’ levels have dominated and largely determined the structure of post-16 curriculum in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for over half a century since their introduction in 1951 when they replaced Higher School Certificates. Since their creation ‘A’ levels have been the predominant system for selecting people for entry to Higher Education (HE) and the traditional English three-year single honours degree programmes. This primary purpose was initially successful bearing in mind the relatively small numbers of grammar and private school students entering the examination. It must be remembered that ‘A’ levels were initially aimed at just 2% of the 16-19 aged population many at grammar and private schools and as such was an elitist examination. It is important to remember that the education system is largely determined and driven by class divisions and snobbery that still persist today. Academic subjects are seen as being more important than technical/commercial/vocational education and training. However as the numbers of candidates increased and the learner populations became more heterogeneous and their subject choices more diverse that logic came into question. Increasingly adult students took the examinations pursuing different modes of attendance and study which also raised questions about its structure, content and assessment methods.
In comparison with other equivalent qualifications ‘A’ levels have survived remarkably well but have attracted some criticism over the years. As a result of these concerns a number of major reviews have been instigated but have brought about little change let alone answered the criticisms.
These criticisms centre on a number of concerns namely:
Ø Depth (specialism) vs balance and breadth
· ‘A’ levels are unique in offering specialised qualifications based on single subjects possessing as a result depth but providing little real opportunity to study for balance and breadth. For example students could elect to study subject combinations that involved only the sciences or humanities, or social sciences or the arts. This is acceptable for the more specialised degree programmes but as the candidate numbers increased they increasingly exercised greater choice of subject combinations which has highlighted one of the fundamental weaknesses of the ‘A’ level system. This increasing trend of opting for mixed economy programmes has paradoxically attracted the opposite criticism particularly from employers and a number universities namely that the subject profile lacks any real focus or specialist theme. It is this inability of the ‘A’ level framework to provide a balanced overall outcome that is a major flaw in its single subject and open choice philosophy. Other countries offer students a broad-based education in a main field of study alongside some opportunity to specialise – the International Baccalaureate (IB) being a good example of this approach
Ø The almost complete lack of a vocational focus
· The focus on single subjects as mentioned above also neglects emphasis on the application of the acquired knowledge and skills and the prevailing view held by many people was that students would gain that practical knowledge once in employment. A couple of examples of this unfortunate belief was the failure to recognise and accept Design and Technology awards and equally surprisingly the rejection of ‘A’ level Engineering by the Engineering professions and universities. Rejections of this kind reinforced negative attitudes to more vocational ‘A’ level qualifications. It was believed that other qualifications would deal with the practical aspects of learning e.g. CGLI/BTEC awards
Ø The primary purpose of the ‘A’ level qualification for the entry to Higher Education (HE) studies
· The mismatch between the overall needs of current learners and this primary purpose is now in question. For many students who do not wish to go on to HE the qualification and associated curriculum is increasingly inappropriate. This fact is unfortunately reinforced by the generally held perception that other equivalent qualifications are second class and students as a result decide to study ‘A’ levels. Unfortunately most parents and teachers seem to believe that ‘A’ levels are the gold standard – the beacons of high standards and reliability. Sadly careers guidance and advice often reflects the teacher’s own limited experience of work outside the education system. After all because of the longevity of the qualifications many people are only aware of the ‘A’ level system. Numerous attempts have been made to develop alternatives, (see later), but none have managed to break the strangle hold of ‘A’ levels. Many of the reviews and subsequent reforms have advocated an intermediate award and more recently vocational alternatives at the same level (see later).
When one analyses how the previous proposed reforms of the system have addressed these concerns one can identify a number of approaches:
Ø Increase number of subjects each with a reduced syllabus content. The Schools Council proposals for N and F level examinations (1973) first advocated this and the Higginson Committee (1988) proposed five leaner ‘A’ levels. Both these reforms were rejected and ‘A’ levels continued to dominate the 16 to 19 curriculum.
Ø Change the assessment system. Assessment was always based on an end of programme unseen examination with no real involvement of teachers. They could opt to be employed as examiners with particular boards and contribute to marking and moderation. Various attempts were made to increase the amount of course work i.e projects, open book examinations which allowed more opportunity to liberate the learning and teaching but again this was a short–lived initiative and only in a few subjects was this more enlightened approach allowed namely Art and Design. Opponents of his argued it reduced standards and a similar fate occurred with modularity and unitisation of the A level curriculum. This group formed a powerful lobby who argued end examinations sustained public confidence and credibility in the ‘A’ levels and maintained independence from schools, colleges and teachers.
Ø Introduction of core (key) skills.
For a number of critics the absence of any real curriculum requirements beyond those assessed in the subjects was a problem particularly in the light of the growing concerns about declining competence in numeracy and literacy. As a result a short–lived development in 1989-90 attempted to introduce these as core skills but this never really succeeded. This approach was resurrected by Dearing review but again had limited success mainly because of the attitudes of many teachers who felt in was demeaning for ‘A’ level students to study such topics even in spite of growing concerns from university entry tutors about the declining levels of mathematical/numerical and communication skills from prospective students. As a result core skills mainly focussed on non-‘A’ level students. Core skills eventually transmogrified into key skills comprising communications, application of number with a third recently added for IT. Key skills are very important and must surely be an integral part all qualifications and that most certainly includes ‘A’ levels. One Tomlinson proposal thankfully accepted by the government was the possible introduction of functional mathematics into the future structure both the then proposed vocational diploma and ‘A’ levels.
Ø New forms of qualification. A number of worthy attempts were made to replace ‘A’ levels over the past couple of decades which if adopted would have brought about a significant improvement to the post-16 curriculum. Space does not allow a complete review of these proposals but three merit a mention and involve the introduction of baccalaureate type frameworks and a general vocational set of awards (GNVQs). The first proposal was the British Baccalaureate (BB) published by the Institute of Public Policy Studies with which a number of key Labour Party people were associated who later became significant members in the government after 1997 e.g. Tessa Blackstone, David Miliband. This and later proposals advocated a unified framework as opposed to an overarching framework embracing different qualifications. The BB also placed great emphasis on modularity, unitisation of the curriculum and innovative assessment regimes based on “fitness of purpose”. The unified approach would bring together the so-called academic (‘A’ levels) and the vocational qualifications and remove the vocational-academic divide. Interestingly once in power the government totally neglected this radical reform. The BB proposals were followed by the Royal Society’s “Beyond GCSE” which again advocated a unified framework based on the best elements of the International Baccalaureate namely subject domains that would realise all the elements of depth, breadth and balance. The Society as one would expect stressed the essential need to continue science and mathematics beyond 16 alongside the students’ main subject elections. However all these proposals and others that followed were rejected. One of the latest examples is the rejection of the Tomlinson proposals for an overarching diploma and the preservation of ‘A’ levels with a watered down diploma for vocational qualifications. Hence the sanctity of ‘A’ levels is maintained and the academic and vocational divide continues. The continuation of the duel system will perpetuate the view that vocational qualifications are second-class and parity of esteem between the qualifications a distant dream. The final example given here is the introduction of the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) in 1991 which attempted to bridge the gap between A levels and the work-based route personified by CGLI/BTEC/ other awarding bodies. Launched with great gusto and evaluated to death they failed to attract sufficient students at all the three levels that were offered namely foundation, intermediate and advanced. Many colleges tried to make GNVQs succeed but again history and prejudice intervened, the majority of them continuing to take GCSEs and ‘A’ levels. As someone involved in the Royal Society group and the GNVQ developments I know how carefully colleagues considered the benefits that would follow such reforms by creating a more fairer and just system for all learners irrespective of their career intentions and personal expectations. Again short term political expedients over ruled educational logic and reality.
As one can see from the above commentary the proposed reforms have been numerous and frequent and yet no real change has occurred. One negative outcome from these reviews and their subsequent rejection is the reinforced belief by the ‘A’ level supporters that the qualification is sound and secure. What changes have occurred are incremental as opposed to radical reform and always sadly driven by political imperatives e.g. the value politicians put on the attitudes of some voters from middle England whom they believe will determine the outcome of general elections. This has been reflected over many years by successive rejections of the numerous groups who have suggested reforms of ‘A’ levels.
Other aspects that are overlooked by the critics and supporters of ‘A’ levels is the distortion and tensions that the ‘A’ level system creates in the education system. ‘A’ levels have always been strongly influenced by the university system. Universities created the majority of examination boards as evidenced by their names – the exception was the Associated Examinating Board (AEB) created to offer ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels to technical colleges. The timing of the A levels examinations and subsequent publication of the results was determined by the beginning of the university year and indeed this led to the way schools and colleges then set their teaching year. Critics have long argued about the lack of flexibility in the ‘scholastic year’ and this has caused innumerable problems for organisations wishing to release people to study at educational institutions at times that suited them. Interesting to reflect on the problems faced by college management when extended year programmes and multiple starting dates were required by the Manpower Services Commission (MSC). Staff were hostile to possible changes in their conditions of service and college management had to employ more part-timers and develop other staff deployment tactics in order to cover the programme schedules. The teachers of the vocational courses accepted the extended year more readily and were conscious of the needs of the employers and funding agencies. These problems were more manifest in general FE colleges which offered a wide range of vocational, professional programmes as well as ‘A’ levels. This aspect also caused tensions between the staff teaching across these different courses as inevitably there were mismatches in the teaching years and very often college managers would receive deputations from vocational staff about the inequalities that this created.
The pervasive influence of ‘A’ levels has affected negatively the way post-16 education and training has been managed and operated over many years. I am very aware many staff and managers in the education system will disagree with me but having seen at first hand these various consequences I look forward to a government of the day carrying out a radical and fundamental root and branch reform of the examination system post-16 which removes the vocational academic divide and establishes parity of esteem between vocational, work based and academic qualifications. Only then can we truly address the current problems associated with skills shortages and better prepare students to enter employment and university to studysuch subjects as science, mathematics, statistics, engineering, modern languages etc. – with a post-16 qualifications, curriculum and examination system that realises breadth, balance and depth. Then and only then will we begin to increase our international competitiveness and compete in the global market. The current government’s thinking about the development of vocational diplomas is yet another example of the paucity of understanding from politicians It will be interesting to see if the current administration (2010 +) tackle the issue of ‘A’ levels and the reform of the examination system particularly with another attempt to introduce vocational qualifications – I am not optimistic!
Final observation about GCE ‘A’ Levels by providing a simple comparison between them and equivalent qualifications in Europe aimed at the same age group. This comparison highlights the narrowness, selectivity and rigidity of ‘A’ levels. These characteristics make it difficult to introduce any real change in the structure – what changes have occurred have been incremental and slight. A root and branch reform would be impossible – basically they need to be completely removed from the examination system. But the current government, as with previous ones, are reluctant to carry out any fundament reform let alone remove them from the qualifications framework – the public schools and middle England would vigorously resist that!
Source: Hodgson. A and Spours. K. ‘Dearing and Beyond.’ ISBN 0 7494 2160 6. Kogan Paul. `1997.