THE GOVERNMENT'S commitment to broadening the 16-19 curriculum and developing key skills for lifelong learning has significant implications for what should be taught before the age of 16. Considerable thought will have to be given to ensuring that the pre-16 curriculum properly prepares students for the transition to post-16 learning. But what should be done?
John Dunford, head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive in the City of Durham and a past president of the Secondary Heads Association, says that in the medium term the Government will have to face up to the logic of having a national curriculum up to the age of 14 and then a post-14 system synchronising key stage 4 with post-16 qualifications in a seamless robe.
"At the moment you have a two-year sprint from 14 to 16, then another two-year sprint 16 to 18. Then you collapse exhausted and stop running. What we actually want is a course set out for a long-distance event in which there are regular stopping places."
Mr Dunford envisages a modular-based accreditation system from the age of 14. Modules will be taken when the student feels ready, and age-related examination league tables at 16 and 18 will become a thing of the past.
Students will no longer be marked out as failures if they have not passed certain exams at set ages. They will build up a portfolio of accreditation towards a national diploma consisting of so many modules at a general level and so many at an advanced level.
In the short term, Mr Dunford does not believe that the Government will be able to move so fast. To demonstrate some progress before the next general election, the Government, he says, will focus entirely on post-16 education and anything that happens pre-16 will be around the edges.
The introduction of accredited modules will necessarily involve the abolition of the exam factories at the ages of 16 and 18, although the standards embodied by GCSEs and A-levels would be preserved through a far greater range of similarly accredited advanced qualifications.
The same level of qualification spanning all education and training in schools would help to get rid of any lingering snobbish preferences for academic rather than vocational qualifications.
John Brenchley, director of training and consultancy at the Further Education Development Agency, says the pre-16 curriculum must recognise the realities of life as it is now and more importantly what it will be in the future.
Young people are going to have to be prepared to live in a volatile world dominated by communications technology, he says. "The varying pattern of employment, possibly voluntary work, unemployment, more leisure and so on will be much more complex than starting a career at a certain age and staying with it for 40 or 50 years."
What this means, he says, is more flexible study and the acquisition of technological skills and practical learning experiences. This will be necessary both to preserve cohesion in society and to ensure that UK Limited remains competitive on the international stage.
"The key principle for me is that the curriculum has to be liberating, not inhibiting. The first half of the 20th century in the UK has been relatively orderly and hierarchical, but this is now fragmenting. Therefore, individuals have to sort out their own routes through life."
Dr Michael Young, head of post-16 centre at the University of London Institute of Education, believes that if you broaden post-16 education, then you make more demands on students. This means that it will be vital to raise attainment levels pre-16. He would like to see students at key stage 4 begin some kind of core requirement and specialisation which would be determined by what they were planning to do at 16-plus.
Dr Young added that there is a very steep gradient for most students between GCSE and A-levels. More preparation must be built in pre-16, so that the gradient is more gradual. One possibility would be foundation modules.
Richard Holdsworth, principal of King Edward VII Community College, in Coalville, Leicestershire, and chairman of SHA's education committee, said: "It seems not over sensible to have things such as English, maths, IT, etc, as discrete subjects pre-16 and then be talking about literacy, numeracy and information handling, etc, post-16. There will be a much greater awareness of core skills from key stage 4 on. It will be essential to get the linkage between key stage 4 structures and post-16 structures."
Sheila Dainton, an assistant secretary in the Association of Teachers and Lecturer's policy unit, said: "I do not think that we are going to be able to start thinking seriously about how to promote greater choice and freedom of thinking post-16 until we have got rid of a 10-subject structured curriculum.
"It does seem to me bizarre that we are going from this enormously constraining statutory framework at one stage in a youngster's education and then suddenly giving them all sorts of opportunities and choices that their earlier education has not equipped them to deal with.
"One thing that will need to be radically improved is careers guidance - helping young people to make informed choices about what they do with their lives, giving kids the skills to make sensible choices. This is not something that you just bolt on at key stage three or 4 - it is something that you start in the nursery."