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Can the gold standard keep its currency?

Scotland and Wales could give England some useful pointers post-Curriculum 2000, argues Kate Taylor

Curriculum 2000 is less than a year old but it has already attracted considerable attention - for all the wrong reasons.

AS-level examinations have been plagued by timetabling clashes, too few examiners and rising costs (TES, June 8). Concerns also have been raised about the level of the new qualification and the belated subject choices made by students progressing to A2, to complete the full A-level. Meanwhile, vocational A-levels and key skills - the other major elements of Curriculum 2000 - face their own problems.

But it is still worth remembering what Curriculum 2000 set out to do. And, by looking at what is happening elsewhere in Britain, envisaging what might happen next.

Scottish and English exam reforms share more than a penchant for summertime disaster - though in Scotland they at least waited until last year's results were due out. Both aim to provide respected qualifications for all and to raise standards, while maintaining flagship qualifications. Emphasis is placed on achieving parity of esteem for academic and vocational qualifications.

Reformers in London have sought to insert greater elasticity into a rigid system, while their counterparts in Edinburgh are addressing the problems that too much flexibility can bring.

The 1980s system in Scotland enabled students to "pick 'n' mix" different units. This proved problematical, and suggests that ministerial caution over extending unitisation in England is well founded. But, if the Government's commitments are to be met, further development of coherent, if flexible, framework seems necessary.

Take broadening A-levels, for instance. Some promising signs have been revealed by a University of London Institute of EducationNuffield Foundation research project, directed by Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours. This year 73 per cent of pupils on AS-type programmes are taking four of the new AS qualifications. But the additional subject tends to be complementary, rather than achieving genuine breadth. And only 21 per cent of students mix general and vocational courses. To improve the situation, the second-term Labour Government might reconsider its shelved plans for an overarching certificate.

The 1996 Dearing Review proposed a National Advanced Diploma to recognise study in four areas (sciences, languages, humanities and "society"), competence in key skills and a modern language, as well as to encourage combinations of different types of learning.

In Scotland, where students can take up to five Highers, new National Certificates of this kind have already been introduced.

The Welsh, meanwhile, have piloted a "Welsh Baccalaureate" giving equal weight to general and vocational elements.

A "British Baccalaureate" once found support in the Labour party and beyond. But that was before New Labour, and radicalism in opposition is quite different from the realities of government. A strong lobby says that the A-level "gold standard" must be maintained. If this message continues to be heard, Scottish lessons on breadth and coherence may be the limits of what can be learned.

Kate Taylor is a researcher with the European University Institute in Florence


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