ANALYSIS: Education - The exam reform knock-on effect

By Anthony Burt

| 25 February 2004

The Department for Education and Skills' proposal to replace GCSEs and A-levels with a diploma could lead to major changes in youth work. Anthony Burt looks at some of the areas that would be affected.

Slicing across the delivery and structure of all formal and informal education, the Department for Educations and Skills' working group's interim report on 14 to 19 reform, 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform, was published last week. It sets out a vision of diploma qualifications for the Government to consider, and outlines how all young people might be able to achieve qualifications reflecting their abilities.

Mike Tomlinson, head of the working group, says: "The time has come to stop tinkering and to develop a coherent approach to the curriculum and qualifications available to 14- to 19-year-olds." He believes too many young people are dropping out of education.

The working group suggests an education system in which more young people are mentored by long-term youth work, "encouraging closer links with schools and informal learning providers".

The proposed qualification range, to replace the current GCSE and A-level structure, will be made up of a diploma framework involving "wider activities".

Young people will be able to take a range of foundation, intermediate or advanced diplomas as well as participating more in (and get learning credits for) extracurricular activities such as community volunteering.

Hands-on approach

For volunteering charity CSV, this is a positive step towards a wider community learning strategy. Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, chief executive of CSV, says: "These reforms give formal recognition of young people's contribution to community schemes as part of their education."

The interim report blames "high truancy rates and behavioural problems" for the disengagement of students at or before 14-years-old. Of course, working with young people who fight against a rigid mainstream curriculum is something youth workers are historically skilled at and teachers need help with.

John Huskins, education consultant and youth work specialist, says: "Teachers tend to take the lion-tamer approach and crack the whip when working with challenging young people. This reform agenda means they will need to gain more youth work-like skills, so they can start looking at the personal development of the young person and not just what exams they have to take."

Caroline Neville, director of learning at the Learning and Skills Council, is supportive of the working group's plans to bring modern apprenticeships into mainstream education. She says: "Alongside the Sector Skills Development Agency, we are presently reforming modern apprenticeship programmes to make their design fit the purposes of young people."

The 14 to 19 reforms will mean the Learning and Skills Council aligns its responsibilities for modern apprenticeships more with schools' delivery of education.

The new diploma will make more choices available to young people. In terms of a unified qualification, it will involve skills such as computing and access to the core programme of wider activities as part of young people's ongoing education. This is good news as regards social inclusion of young people with learning difficulties who struggle to cope with learning. But is it bad news for personal advisers who have spent years training as careers guidance specialists?

Eileen Manley, chief executive of Connexions Staffordshire, says: "This won't necessarily mean personal adviser training will alter a great deal. But there is a definite need for clarity about Connexions' position on whether it continues supporting careers guidance in schools."

This view is backed up by the report, which states: "While the Connexions service has succeeded in meeting the objectives it was set, it is likely that the objectives themselves will need to be revisited if the demand for more and better guidance is to be met."

Manley welcomes the working group's reform proposals in terms of providing young people not in education, employment and training with a more flexible approach to learning."It's not presently a school function to be a youth support service, but young people need that kind of preparation to gain as much out of their education as possible," she says.

Employment schemes

The Entry to Employment scheme (e2e), which is administered by the Learning and Skills Council and has placed almost 28,000 young people on its work-based learning programme since beginning in September, will become part of a student's natural progression through the diploma levels.

This means a pupil may begin with an entry level or foundation diploma and be placed on e2e to gain further credits.

And with the report recommending an increase in the number of hours a young person is on a full-time diploma from the current post-16 average of 450 hours a year to 600 hours, e2e is set to become much busier. This has implications for staffing levels, namely the likely need for more community youth workers. Tomlinson says: "We will be looking carefully at the resources needed for our proposals in the next phase of our work."

See Talking point, p18


- A new flexible foundation, intermediate and advanced diploma framework for education

- To involve "wider activities" where young people can gain learning credits for volunteering and community work

- Modern apprenticeships to be integrated in the mainstream diploma education structure

- Connexions objectives to be examined to ensure advice and guidance fits with proposals

- Entry to Employment (e2e) to be part of the diploma progression route.

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