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Labour takes on academic snobs

Languages squeezed out of compulsory curriculum, as ministers outline bigger role for vocational learning. Julie Henry reports

THERE are clear winners and losers from the latest, hugely ambitious, overhaul of secondary education.

Science teachers will be celebrating, as their subjects remain compulsory after 14; modern languages staff have not been so lucky - their work has been sidelined.

And while the brightest pupils have more to aim for, there are worries that the plans neglect the needs of the bottom of the class.

A big winner, ministers hope, will be vocational learning. The Government has high aims for its "visionary" Green Paper, entitled 14-19: Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards, published this week. It hopes to see an end to British "snobbery" towards work-related courses, which leaves school-leavers without the skills they need for the workplace. It also wants to end the culture of leaving at 16 - fewer pupils stay on in education in the UK than in the Czech Republic.

Heads' and teachers' associations welcomed proposals for an overarching matriculation diploma that would reward vocational and academic achievements up to the age of 19. They also welcome the greater flexibility at key stage 4.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the moves would reduce indiscipline in the classroom and improve youngsters' chances of getting a job. "It is more useful for youngsters to learn about business than have a smattering of languages to help them order a beer on some foreign beach," he said.

However, the Association of Language Learning claimed that a vocational agenda without languages was a huge mistake. Terry Lamb, president, said:

"How can you do leisure and tourism GCSE without having to do languages? There will be teachers... worrying about redundancies."

Scientists lobbied hard to save the special status of their subjects. Their trump card was National Science Year: abolishing compulsory science in 2002 would have caused uproar.

The new matriculation diploma has been applauded because it does not distinguish between the academic and vocational. However, it is unclear how universities and employers will view it. If they do not value it, it is feared, the bias towards academic subjects will persist.

John Dunford, Secondary Heads Association general secretary, said of the plans: "Employers and universities will still want to know what grades have been achieved."

Others also doubt whether the introduction of vocational options can end academic snobbery. Jackie Kearns, head of Impington Village College, Cambridge, which offers the international baccalaureate and A-levels, said:

"The vocational GCSE is basically another name for a GNVQ. The snobbery will continue to exist until private schools take an interest in vocational subjects."

There are also concerns that the minimum requirement of five A*-to-C GCSEs for an intermediate diploma could demotivate less able students. At present, only about half of 16-year-olds achieve these. This increases to about 80 per cent by age 18. John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said: "I am deeply concerned that the first-level diploma could exclude some very hard working students."

Another "glaring omission" is the failure to relieve the exam burden. The Green Paper's only offering is the prospect of bright teenagers skipping GCSEs. League tables will be changed to include points awarded for AS-levels gained at 16. But, despite tabloid headlines, announcing the "death of GCSE" Education Secretary Estelle Morris said she expected the vast majority to continue with the exam for the foreseeable future.

Some teachers fear that bright students will be forced to specialise too early. They are also concerned that allowing a few pupils to go so far ahead will leave them with a management nightmare as they try to run dual-track classes.

Proposals for high-flying A-level students are the most controversial. An A* grade for the top 5 per cent had been mooted, while others backed new advanced extension awards. The option ministers went for - harder questions in papers to allow pupils to gain a distinction - has been described as a fudge between these. The exams extension awards, still in their infancy, look doomed.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The distinction grade is totally unwarranted. It divides high-achievers into the elite and sub-elite." Proposal for a "higher" matriculation diploma for high-achievers - awarded to those who have a minimum of an A and two Bs at A-level - have been similarly criticised.

David Hargreaves, 19

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