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Another year of AS chaos?

Heads fear not enough has been done to fix Curriculum 2000. Phil Revell reports.

This time last year, the dominant topic of conversation in sixth forms and colleges was the rapidly unravelling Curriculum 2000 reforms.

Twelve months on, the issue refuses to go away. Last week's Secondary Heads Association survey on university admissions requirements revealed that most higher education departments give no credit for added breadth in the new courses. Some university websites made no mention of the new AS and A2 exams. Many sites were out of date, some not having been revised since 1999.

"It is appalling that schools are still having to advise students without any clear idea of the way in which universities will view the number of qualifications they gain," says the association's general secretary, John Dunford.

"Unless universities demonstrate to students the value placed by admissions tutors on additional subjects at AS-level, schools will again be advising young people to study only three subjects and the Government's reforms will be dead in the water."

The Curriculum 2000 reforms were intended to broaden the post-16 academic diet and strengthen students' key skills. But from the start there were howls of protest from students and teachers alike.

Students caved in under the workload, and schools looked askance at a system that demanded more teaching and examining within the same budgets and time.

The 2001 debacle produced that rare event, a ministerial apology. But Estelle Morris's summer intervention had little effect. Her single AS-exam solution was abandoned less than two months later.

In the end, all that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority offered schools and colleges was rejigging the AS timetable and relaxing key skills requirements.

Staff at Stafford's Walton high school are more confident about teaching AS this year, but an extended exam season is still creating problems. Head Sue Kirkham says: "AS exams begin on May 13 and last until the end of June," she said. "In effect, the AS has become a two-term course."

Walton has no sports hall and the school has to use a variety of rooms for the exams. That increases the invigilation bill and causes timetable disruption. The school also has to find space for the Year 9 national tests in the first week in May. "It's becoming ridiculous," says Ms Kirkham.

In Hull, the Wyke College was not best pleased to find exam dates being moved around. "We now have exam boards timing exams in May, but still delivering results in August," says principal Martin Ward. He also thinks that the cost is disproportionate.

"We have had to increase our exam budget massively," he says. "We now have a full-time exams officer who works at the job all year round." Many schools are beginning the A2 year as soon as AS finishes, to make use of the three to four weeks of teaching time before the long summer break.

The main worry of Elspeth Insch, head of King Edward's Handsworth grammar for girls, Birmingham, is the impact of AS on the wider curriculum.

Her girls have less time for work experience, drama, sport - all activities that Ms Insch feels should be an essential part of education.

Moves to release the logjam by allowing an earlier start for AS, discussed in the 14-19 Green Paper, do not meet with her approval.

"I'm absolutely opposed," she says. "We must allow children to be young - I don't want schools to become exam factories."

phil.revell@ukonline.co.uk

KEY SKILLS IN CRISIS

One of the most contentious aspects of Curriculum 2000 reforms is key skills. Application of number, communication, and information technology were examined last year, causing problems for schools.

Young people with good GCSEs in English, maths or IT did not understand why they were being asked to sit a further exam and Estelle Morris has agreed they will no longer have to. But this does not help the status of key skills with students, who do not rate them. One college head told The TES:

"Quite honestly, students don't want to know."

The QCA recently published a position paper on the future of key skills. It can be found at: www.qca.org.uk.

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