Standards are lists of desired learning outcomes that express what students are expected to know and be able to do once they have gone through a certain educational program. Standards are not descriptions of a curriculum. One and the same set of standards can be reached by different curricula. The idea of standards is to enable social agents to develop realistic expectations of what students know and can do. In that sense, the concept of standards fits in with the ideal of quality assurance. As we will see, this general description leaves room for variations in what standards look like.
The GCE in Engineering is one of the new A-level GCEs that have replaced the former Vocational Certificates of Education. GCEs directly precede university-level education.
In England and Wales, compulsory education runs from student ages 5 through 16 and is divided into three Key Stages: KS1 (1–3), KS2 (4–6), and KS3 (U.S. grades 7–9). England and Wales have a National Curriculum that is common for all state schools. Taken together, KS1 and KS2 are primary education, and KS3 and KS4 are secondary education. In the first three Key Stages, technology education is part of the curriculum, under the subject name Design and Technology. In these stages, the use of math and science is rather superficial, and the use of general engineering concepts is implicit, if present at all.
In the fifth year of secondary education, students take General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) courses (at the Ordinary Level [O-level]), after which they can continue with Advanced Level (A-level) courses. Levels are awarded by companies, which are recognized by the government as entitled to administer the examinations and award the certificates. At this moment only one such organization, Edexcel, provides the courses and examinations for the GCE in Engineering.
At the A-level, the GCE in Engineering certificate is divided into three Advanced Subsidiaries (AS) comprising 180 guided learning hours and an A2 level, whereby AS levels are completed first and are recognized as a separate qualification. The full A-level certificate comprises AS-levels plus the A2-level. The AS-level GCE in Engineering courses were introduced in 2006, and the first full A-level certificates were awarded in 2007. In 2006, 234 of the 365 students enrolled passed the exam.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has produced “subject criteria” for the GCE in Engineering exam; the criteria “are intended to help ensure consistent and comparable standards in qualifications in the same subject/sector.” This quote from the QCA document shows that subject criteria may not be exactly the same as standards, but they come close to standards because they try to give a clear picture of the qualities students will have. For illustration, the first four subject criteria are included below.