Schools across the country are now receiving some 300 new syllabuses in all national curriculum subjects, but the biggest complaint about the syllabuses themselves comes from English departments. They have long been fighting changing Government policies on English, ranging from the reduction of coursework from 100 per cent to 40 per cent to the new national curriculum Order with its lists of authors.
"The English syllabuses are very much content-based rather than skills-based, " said Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, which has received many complaints from teachers. "They are absolutely appalling."
A significantly increased literature component will mean that larger numbers of less able pupils will be excluded from English GCSEs altogether, she warned. "A lot of children are going to be disaffected: they will be truanting. " Teachers "will have to drill more than discuss, and that's a seriously backward step".
A School Curriculum and Assessment Authority spokeswoman said four categories of reading were specified in the criteria because some had been squeezed out in the past. "The English Order encourages teachers to help children see the interest and enjoyment in literature, and we would hope that study for GCSE would do exactly that," she said.
Meanwhile, headteachers' leaders are predicting that few schools will, at the outset, take up the new GCSE short courses on offer in nine subjects for the first time from September. These courses, intend-ed to provide the depth of a GCSE but with less breadth and in half the time, were first devised to help schools keep timetabling flexibility while fulfilling the requirement to teach technology and modern foreign languages at key stage 4.
However, the concept has been extended to art, geography, history, music, PE, IT and RE. SCAA says the RE short course in particular has been welcomed by schools wanting to offer some accreditation for a mandatory subject.
"Schools are going to act very cautiously this year because they haven't felt they have had the information to make the decisions in time," said John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads Association. "I think very few schools will be doing short courses this year." He said that the exam fees were likely to be more than half the cost of the full GCSE fee. "But much more important than that is the issue of what's in the syllabus, how it relates to the full course and whether it's more than half the content."
He said technology teachers were concerned that there would not be adequate time in an hour a week to get good results.
Mr Dunford estimated that at least a quarter of schools would not manage to fulfil the requirement for technology at KS4 in 1996 with either long or short courses. "It may take two to three years to get there," he said. Costs, staffing and accommodation for a subject requiring particular and expensive equipment would stand in the way. However, they were worried about not meeting their obligations, particularly if the Office for Standards in Education visits.
The modern language short course will not be popular either. "Any language teacher will tell you you can't learn the language in one hour a week," he said. They will be interested to see the vocationally-oriented short course alternative which has been made available, but he suspected that few will try it out in 1996.
The first short-course exams will be offered in 1997, with syllabuses allowing either a full-time course for one year or a half-time course for two.
A further issue which will make schools delay decisions about short courses is the league tables. Ministers have promised they would be included, but have not yet determined in what form.
* Exam boards will be awarding separate marks for spoken English to GCSE candidates beginning this summer. The move follows a call from the Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, at the Conservative party conference last autumn.