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Education Update

Understanding 14-19

By Rachel Noyce

Reform. It’s a great word. It means to take something apart and put it back together in a new way. It has hints of revolution in it: that for good or for bad, things will not, in the end, bear any resemblance to what they were before.

Education in England for 14 to 19 year olds is currently undergoing its biggest reform in the last 20 years. And although it’s been on the cards for some time now, it’s something that has passed under the radar for many people. Ask your average person what qualification you would expect a student to be studying for at age 15 and they would say GCSE. Ask them what qualification somebody over 16 would be studying for and they may tell you an A-level, or perhaps a BTEC or NVQ if they were more ‘vocationally’ minded. Would they have mentioned a Diploma, the first five of which were rolled out in September 2008, with the next five starting this September in schools and colleges across the country? Probably not.

The Diploma is a new way of learning for 14-19. Students have the option to learn about given employment sectors (such as creative and media, health and social care or manufacturing), gaining knowledge and understanding about industry as well as being able to experience it first hand. The Government are keen to stress that the Diploma is not ‘vocational’ – it isn’t an apprenticeship or work-based training. Rather it gives students the opportunity to apply their academic learning to an area of industry that interests them and that they are interested in joining when they leave school or college. Within the course, students develop functional skills in English, Maths and ICT as well as essential employment skills such as teamwork and communication. There’s also the opportunity to experience their chosen industry through on-going work placements. It is flexible enough to suit students of all academic abilities, with Diplomas at foundational, higher and advanced level.

In September 2008, about 12,000 students opted for the Diploma and the number looks set to rise this year. Labour has pinned its hopes on it as the way forward for 14-19 education, with the Diploma eventually replacing GCSE and A-level provision. The Conservatives won’t go that far, but certainly support the Diploma as an option. So it is fair to say it’s here to stay. And if this is the case, it will have implications for the future of faith-based schoolswork in England.

Perhaps the biggest implication of the Diploma centres around delivery. Teaching expertise and specialist facilities are being shared by schools and colleges collaborating in consortiums. This will mean a lot more to-ing and fro-ing on the part of students and staff alike. This will have challenges of its own for schools as they seek to manage and maintain day to day routines – and for schoolsworkers, it raises the question of our part to play in KS4 and beyond. The traditional outlets of engagement – assemblies and RE – are not easily compatible with the new structures that the Diploma demands. Could this see the end of Christian schoolswork at age 14 and beyond?

A recent conference sought to address the question of spirituality and its place within the 14-19 Diploma. In English schools, RE is still a statutory requirement in schools and sixth form colleges, with provision encouraged in FE colleges. In other words, RE belongs in the wider school curriculum; it’s the practicalities of delivery which need to be debated. Forward thinkers have suggested that RE becomes applied learning, as with many other subjects, within the Diploma. For example, a builder or plumber may need to refit a place of worship – in this eventuality, wouldn’t it be a good idea to know about the thinking behind the architectural design, or how you should conduct yourself inside? Or a journalist may need to cover stories from religious communities – wouldn’t it be helpful to understand some of the different customs, teachings and festivals in order to make sense of the story?

But this level of engagement is insufficient. Assuming – and we shouldn’t – that a subject teacher would be happy to teach something they may have limited understanding of, surely we’re beyond the ‘features of a church’ level of RE, especially at KS4 and Post-16? In this eventuality, where is the ‘learning from’ element, or the invitation for young people to reflect on their own perspective? In my experience, you don’t need to try to persuade young people to talk about matters of life and the universe. You don’t need to cajole them into discussing what really gets them about the world they live in. It’s something they’re eager to discuss and debate, with or without an applied-learning-hook to hang it on. The question really lies, as ever, with whether or not schools have got time or capacity to deliver RE amidst the changing system – and that in turn is a question of perspective. Does the school believe it to be a vital part of helping their students to mature into rounded and aware young adults, or do they see it as an outdated hangover from a by-gone age which is (hopefully) on its way out?

One thing’s certain, and that’s that nothing’s certain. Reform at 14-19 may be an essential step forward, but let’s hope that some important things remain.