By John Cridland, CBI director-general
We owe it to the future workforce to ensure new qualifications are rigorous enough — and promoted well enough — to win the respect of the public and employers.
A-level results have always been a silly season gift to news editors, with their annual menu of furious arguments over standards, the “scramble” for university, and the obligatory shots of camera-friendly twins off to read PPE at Oxbridge.
Winners and losers, joy and tears — for years you could pretty much get away with repeating last year’s coverage only with different names.
Yet this year the script will be different — and here’s why:
Firstly, A-levels are going back to basics in the next two years, with one of the key changes the ditching of modular A-levels in favour of a return to a single exam at the end of the course.
The merits of modular A-levels have been long debated. But in the cold light of day, it’s clear that breaking down subjects into bite-sized chunks drove up results, but not necessarily standards. Teachers became more skilled at drilling students, while multiple resits meant an inevitable increase in grades over time.
But there is more to stopping the exam treadmill than scrapping the modular system. Forget the political knockabout on standards: we need a more fundamental and coherent reform of the secondary school system to stop young people slipping through the net.
The history of education policy is littered with piecemeal changes, and we fear there is little consistency between A-level reform and the overhaul of the National Curriculum — while compulsory education until 18, along with the demands from business for more advanced skills, calls into the question the merit of high-stakes GCSEs at 16.
So to ensure that the present changes are part of a consistent policy the CBI has this year called for broader and stronger technical education from age 14 onwards; compulsory English and maths until 18; and a culture shift in how schools can best equip young people with rounded, grounded and rigorous skills they need for life.
The second development that will change the hue of A-level coverage is the Tech Levels that will be introduced from 2015 and go some way toward the gold-standard 16 to 18 vocational qualifications we’ve been calling for — specifically in our First Steps report.
But true test of Tech Levels is two-fold.
They have be a genuinely rigorous qualification, complete with technical, specialist study that employers want. Courses must have stretching subject knowledge; tough assessments; hard-nosed practical experience; and be a stepping stone to a great career.
And just as important is the perception: they will fail if they are viewed as second-class by businesses or parents. They won’t be seen as equivalent to A-levels just because a minister tells us they are - as the last government found out with the defunct Diploma.
In principle, Tech Levels are a solid proposition — but they risk being undermined by proposals such that which would allow as few as five employers to “approve” a course. And splitting them from more “applied” general vocational courses could create the dangerous notion of a two-tier vocational system.
At the very least, we want a more rigorous Tech Level brand to cover both strands of vocational education. And ultimately, unless these qualifications are marketed and sold as vocational A-levels, it’s going to be pretty tough to put them on a par with academic qualifications for parents and employers.
The third difference in A-level coverage that has emerged in recent years is driven by the increasing cost of degrees: young people, faced with £30,000 debts before living costs, are becoming much savvier in shopping around for degrees that give them the edge in a tighter jobs market.
Ministers have insisted that Russell Group universities alone should have input in the new A-levels — a move that betrays an ingrained view that the traditional three-year degree — rather than a vocational course - is the default route to a good career.
Yet A-levels are not the passport solely to university but also to higher apprenticeships and other “learn while you earn” opportunities. Businesses must be involved in drawing up new syllabuses and qualifications wherever relevant, so they keep pace with industry demands.
On top of this, we need a more robust market in higher-skills provision, alongside traditional degrees, so the UK can address the critical lack of skills in key sectors — as the CBI set out last month in its Tomorrow’s Growth report.
So while I expect to see some of the usual stale news fare this week, the education world is moving on. And who knows — in the next couple of years we may pick up a newspaper and see a photo of those straight-A twins celebrating winning places on a high-prestige vocational course with an engineering firm. That would be real progress.