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All change for key stage 4

The greatest upheaval over the next five years looks set to take place in key stage 4. Alterations to the national curriculum from September 1996 mean that new GCSE syllabuses are being approved in all subjects this autumn to fit in with the changed requirements.

A raft of short course syllabuses are being developed by the exam boards and some will be available for schools to use from next September. As determined by the Dearing Review last autumn, 14-to-16 year olds in England will have to study design and technology and a modern foreign language, but can do either short or full GCSEs in those subjects. Short courses will also be available in IT and RE.

During the summer, Ministers approved the development of GCSE short courses in art, geography, history, music and PE. It is unlikely that all exam boards will offer all these subjects, but the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority expects at least one of each to be approved in time for the first exams in 1997. Schools will decide whether to offer "fat" short courses (half the content of a GCSE in a year) or "skinny" ones (spread over two years).

Later this term, SCAA will be sending advice on planning, called "Managing the Curriculum at Key Stage 4" to all secondary schools. The booklet will explore the curriculum and timetabling implications of short courses and vocational options.

The pilot of General National Vocational Qualifications for 14-16 year olds (Part One GNVQs) started in 115 schools this month, trying out courses in business, health and social care and manufacturing. These will be watched with interest, monitored by SCAA and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, and evaluated by the Office for Standards in Education. SCAA, the NCVQ and the vocational boards are working on assessment arrangements for GNVQs to secure broad parity with GCSEs.

It will be some time before Part One GNVQs can be offered by all schools to 14-year-olds, since the pilot will last for two or three years. Next September they are expected to extend to 300 schools, with further courses in Art and Design, IT and a limited pilot in Leisure and Tourism. Further subjects could follow in 1997.

SCAA and the NCVQ are working to link the vocational core skills of literacy, numeracy and IT with the national curriculum requirements for English, maths and IT in an effort to avoid wasteful repetition of work for pupils and teachers. Pupils should be able to combine courses and move on to A-levels andor full GNVQs from similar starting points.

A merger between SCAA and the NCVQ could be on the cards by 2000. GCSEs are under scrutiny as well. Education Secretary Gillian Shephard has asked SCAA and OFSTED to look at GCSE and A-level standards over time, to make sure they are consistent.

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