28/04/16

So the qualifications goalposts are moving again. There have been two unrelated announcements during the last week which conflict sharply with the Government’s stated policy of ‘Excellence for All’ and have the potential to add further confusion and distraction to schools which are desperately trying to do their very best for the young people in their care.

First , it would seem that the worthiness of some qualifications on the list approved by DFE and in one case an internationally recognised one has been called into question by the regulator. The reason for this investigation has nothing to do with knowledge or skills those achieving these qualifications might have demonstrated by passing the exam but instead relates to the amount of direct teaching candidates have received in preparation for the test.

At this stage I must pause to allow readers to take this in…… Isn’t that teaching to the test which has been so heavily criticised by the same regulator? And where does this leave the accreditation of prior learning, a widely accepted aspect of many respected qualifications. Does it for example mean that when I learnt the violin as a child I would not have been allowed to take my grade exams unless I had had a set amount of teaching rather than taking the test when I was ready? Does it mean that I should have been required to attend a further course before taking the Final Diploma of the Institute of Linguists even though I had a degree in German and was able to gain that valuable professional qualification without doing so?

One qualification under scrutiny is in The European Computer Driving Licence – an internationally recognised qualification which the government’s own National Careers Service strongly recommends and indeed says n its website: ‘if you have passed ECDL, employers know you have the skills to carry out the main tasks on a computer…….And it looks great on your CV.’ The same website continues ‘If you’re confident you already have the skills needed for the ECDL, you don’t need to undertake any training. You can just sit the test at an approved centre‘. What could possibly be wrong with equipping young people with such a valuable qualification which demonstrates competences they have developed throughout their schooling and which are needed in almost every job?

The second was an announcement by Minister Nick Boles threatening penalties to schools which enter pupils for A-levels from which they subsequently drop out. For a number of years I have been anything but a lone voice in arguing the case for all young people to have access to impartial careers advice from trained professionals. Whilst it is to be welcomed that the government is now investing heavily in promoting links with employers and providing enterprise advisers to assist schools, funding for careers advisors was withdrawn. The responsibility to make up for the shortfall was passed to schools leaving many high and dry.

The government has also rightly highlighted the fact that there are parts of the country when very few young people gain access to A-levels or University. It has made it clear that it will be using the accountability system and Ofsted inspections to focus on this.

So on the one hand schools must increase the number of young people taking A-levels and on the other hand if some don’t make the grade schools will be penalized. Schools are expected to advise young people about the full range of qualifications but in many parts of the country have enormous difficulty accessing impartial information. Meanwhile the accountability system focuses largely on academic qualifications with a much lower emphasis on vocational ones.

We need to be absolutely clear about the impact of these kinds of announcements drip fed to schools.
Many young people rely totally on the support given to them by their schools to enable them to access successful careers. In providing such support schools need to have the freedom to decide what is the best curriculum for them and to help them to access those qualifications which will best support them to that end. There is no argument that these will include a strong academic grounding but that is not enough for everyone.
Young people need to know about all of the career options open to them. By providing high-quality guidance combined with careers education and access to a range of employers who can provide them with first hand knowledge of the world of work we can break the cycle of low aspiration and ambition which has held back so many young people for generations.Threats of the kind made by Minister Boles will strongly incentivise schools to be highly selective in admission to A-level courses and advise many people to take a comfortable option which does not necessarily unleash their full potential. This could be immensely damaging to the improvement of social mobility as well as this country’s international standing in educational performance.
Policy about qualifications is in a complete mess. Employers and providers of higher and further education need qualifications to provide evidence of the learning outcomes candidates have achieved. Statements from official sources which undermine those the government itself has recognised leave employers confused and disenfranchised from the education system.
In his recently published book ‘Coalition’ former schools minster David Laws eloquently describes Michael Gove’s surprise announcement in 2012 to bring back O Levels and CSE which was thankfully kicked into touch. Is perhaps the not so hidden agenda here to return to the days of norm referencing when qualifications were gatekeepers rather than the key to life chances?