FORUM - ISSN 0963-8253
Volume 45 Number 1 (2003)

Clyde Chitty pages 1-2
DOI: 10.2304/forum.2003.45.1.1


The second half of January 2003 saw the publication of two very important documents on education by the Blair Government: a discussion document with the title 14-19: Opportunity and Excellence and a White Paper on The Future of Higher Education. This Editorial aims to present a brief preliminary analysis of their main proposals; and I will deal with each of the documents in turn.

14-19: Opportunity and Excellence

Many of the ideas and themes presented in this new document were foreshadowed in the DIES Green Paper 14-19: Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards, published in February 2002 and discussed in the Summer 2002 number of FORUM. Yet in some respects this 2003 document is stronger and more coherent than the one published a year ago because the Government has clearly taken note of many of the views expressed at the 58 Green Paper consultation meetings held around the country last Summer.

There is still a strong commitment to the idea of a 14 to 19 'continuum', with the age of 16 thereby losing its traditional status as a major 'break-point' in the lives of young people. What the Government seems clearly anxious to articulate is an evolving vision for greater coherence in the 14 to 19 phase of education and training combined with a flexible approach which enables all students to proceed at a pace best suited to their developing abilities and preferred ways of learning. To all intents and purposes, then, the National Curriculum will now effectively end at 14, followed by greater flexibility and a clearer sense of continuity in the years spanning the age 16 barrier.

It is proposed that English, mathematics and science will remain at the heart of the compulsory curriculum for 14 to 16 year-olds, with the current substantial Programme of Study for science being reviewed to arrive at a core content that is considered suitable for all learners. All students will learn about work and enterprise; and ICT (information and communications technology) will remain compulsory for the time being, though with the understanding that the skills involved will increasingly be taught through other subjects in future years. Citizenship, religious education, sex education, careers education and physical education will remain compulsory to ensure, in the words of the document, that 'all students continue to learn to be responsible and healthy adults'. As envisaged in the 2002 Green Paper, modern foreign languages and design and technology will no longer be 'required study' for all 14 to 16 year-old students and will join the arts and the humanities as subjects where there will be 'a new statutory entitlement of access'.

The document is anxious to highlight three reforms designed to address the weakness and low status of vocational education. It points out that new GCSEs in eight vocational subjects were introduced in September 2002: in Applied Art and Design; Applied Business;

Engineering; Health and Social Care; Applied ICT; Leisure and Tourism; Manufacturing; and Applied Science. Each was designed to be a double award, equivalent to two GCSEs. Now to complement this initiative, there is to be a new system of 'hybrid' GCSEs each with a common core and optional vocational or general units. Secondly, modern apprenticeships will be improved and expanded, so that at least 28 per cent of young people can become apprentices by 2004. Thirdly, GCSEs and A Levels will no longer be labelled as either 'vocational' or 'academic' (or indeed as 'hybrid'). The document rightly points out that status matters and that engineering should enjoy equal status with mathematics or art and design.

There are a number of issues where the Government has clearly had second thoughts since the publication of the Green Paper. There will be no new A Level A grade 'with distinction', the Government preferring to stick with the Advanced Extension Awards (AEAs) which were introduced in the Summer of 2002 to 'stretch' the most able Advanced Level students by requiring a greater depth of understanding than does A Level itself.

At the same time, the Government has decided to scrap the proposal for a new 'overarching award' to mark the completion of the 14 to 19 phase, called provisionally the Matriculation Diploma. This was attacked by many organisations for the lack of a foundation level diploma, below the intermediate level, which would send out all the wrong signals to those students who are most difficult to motivate. It is also true that universities and employers were not attracted to the idea and that without such currency, the Matriculation Diploma simply could not succeed.

The document deliberately distinguishes between short-term and long-term reforms. It announces the appointment of a new Working Group for 14 to 19 Reform, to be headed by former Chief Inspector Mike Tomlinson, which will be expected to look at the possible introduction of an English Baccalaureate, designed to recognise vocational and academic courses as well as activities outside the classroom, such as volunteering, and reward achievements by students at both ends of the so­-called 'ability spectrum'. In the words of the document: Baccalaureate-style qualifications of this type work well in other countries, and we believe that this model, designed to suit English circumstances, could tackle long­standing English problems, giving greater emphasis to completing courses of study (and training as appropriate) through to the age of 18 or 19, without a heavier burden of examination and assessment' (page 13). This suggested area of reform, threatening as it does the so-called 'gold standard' A Level, has received considerable emphasis in newspaper reports of the discussion document - the headline to the story in The Times Educational Supplement (24 January 2003) being 'Future without A Levels is on the cards'.

There are, of course, shortcomings and disappointments in the Government's new approach. For one thing, the document shows great timidity where the future of the GCSE is concerned. On page 11, it accepts that the GCSE has become a qualification at two levels, with Level 2 (or grades A*-C) being viewed by the public as 'success' and Level I (or grades D-G) being widely seen as 'failure'. This means that for many young people, achieving Level I is demotivating and that they would often prefer not to reveal that they have taken GCSEs than admit to gaining a lower grade. We know that many secondary schools find it necessary to 'ration' their attention and resources in order to concentrate on those students at the 'borderline' between grades C and D. There really is no point in having a public examination at 16 if we are serious about wanting to establish a 14 to 19 'continuum'.

This leads us on to the second major disappointment in the document: the failure to abolish league tables. In any sensible 14 to 19 system, there would be no place for examination tables for 16 and 18 year-olds. It is, after all, the crucial factor of league table success that has led so many schools to developing new ways of identifying and encouraging those students who might, with additional support, manage a C grade in a number of subjects.

Finally, we seem to have abandoned any possibility of a broad, balanced and coherent curriculum for all students beyond the age of 14. Greater clarity about the future composition of an English bac might mean a reversal of current trends, but it is difficult to be optimistic about this. The proposed curriculum reforms are not supposed to take effect before the 2004/2005 academic year at the earliest; but we know that hundreds of secondary schools are 'jumping the gun' by dropping compulsory lessons in foreign languages and in design and technology. The key to combining flexibility and breadth at Key Stage Four lies in a modular curriculum structure, opening up the possibility of breadth over time, but the Government shows little or no sign of recognising this.

The Funding of Higher Education

After eighteen months of media speculation, four postponed launches and a number of well-informed 'leaked stories' about marked divisions of opinion within Blair's Cabinet, Education Secretary Charles Clark finally announced the Government's plans for the future funding of higher education in the 105-page White Paper The Future of higher Education, published on 22 January. We now know that universities in England will be able to charge 'top-up' tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year for their most popular and prestigious courses. Students will not have to pay the new fees until they have graduated and are earning at least £15,000 a year (a repayment threshold that is higher than the current one, of £ 10,000). Poorer students with parents or families earning less than £ 10,000 a year will be eligible for a grant of £1,000 a year. This will all come into effect in the Autumn of 2006. It has been

estimated that many students will leave university with total debts amounting to at least £21,000: £9,000 in tuition fees and £12,000 in maintenance costs. And accountancy experts have calculated that all this may well lead to graduates facing a higher rate of tax than that paid by millionaires, once they reach the £15,000 threshold (report in The Independent, 23 January 2003).

The Question of Access

Many have argued that the fear of debt will deter many teenagers, and particularly working-class teenagers, from embarking on a university course. We know that the social class gap among those entering higher education is already unacceptably wide and growing. Those from the 'top' three social classes are almost three times as likely to enter higher education as those from the 'bottom' three. And young people from professional backgrounds are over five times more likely to enter higher education than those from unskilled backgrounds.

The White Paper announces the appointment of an independent Access Regulator, whose task will be to agree with universities on action to increase the take-up of students from 'disadvantaged groups' and who can then impose penalties or withdraw the right to charge variable fees, where appropriate, if universities do not fulfil their part of the agreement. The aim of the appointment is a laudable one, but it is not clear exactly how this new system will work, and it is feared by many that could involve the imposition of new and invariably cumbersome bureaucratic controls and regulations.

Currently around 43 per cent of 18 to 30 year-olds in England enter some form of higher education; and the Government is committed to raising this figure to 50 per cent by the year 2010. The White Paper makes it clear that this target will largely be met by increasing the number of youngsters on new two-year vocational courses, many of these being offered at further education colleges. In the words of the document: 'We do not favour expansion on the single template of the traditional three-year honours degree' (p. 60).

Towards a New Structure for Higher Education?

The White Paper is about far more than new funding arrangements and the widening of access. What is being proposed is the rapid development or intensification of a hierarchy of institutions. Three-quarters of research funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England already goes to just 25 institutions. Now research money is to be concentrated even more on 'top-­performing' departments. The Government is urging 'less research-intensive institutions' to all but forget about trying to make breakthroughs in, say, science and technology and instead to work more closely with local companies solving 'real-world problems'. In other words, what the Government wants is the wholesale restoration of the two-tier university/polytechnic divide.

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To cite this article
Clyde Chitty (2003) Editorial, FORUM, 45(1), 1-2. https://doi.org/10.2304/forum.2003.45.1.1

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