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Less choice, fewer students;Comment;Opinion;FE Focus

ONE OF the lessons we had to learn on incorporation was that we were all running businesses. We have so far managed to avoid calling students "customers", knowing how we object to having become customers and not passengers on the trains.

But we had to produce charters and give attention to customer care. Even with the 16 to 19-year-olds, that means listening to them and what they think they need, in terms of guidance and curriculum. As for adults, they simply will not join us unless we offer what they want.

But some organisations seem less aware than others of what we have become, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in particular. I am very concerned about the work of the authority and its revision of A-level subjects and titles.

I'm not against the reduction in awarding bodies, and I support the idea that the numbers taking some subjects do not justify their being offered in substantially the same form by all the awarding bodies. Much good horse-trading has already been done between them, arbitrated by QCA, to rationalise the offer and reduce the number of subject syllabuses.

What I am referring to is the removal of subjects altogether, in the name of breadth and clarity. It will no longer be possible for students to take an A-level in art and design with an A-level in photography, since photography will become an option within art and design.

If the same happens to textiles, it will also be impossible to study textiles and photography, since candidates are to be allowed only one option within the list.

This raises the old debate about breadth and specialisation, the argument being that taking art and photography would lead to an undesirable narrowing of thecurriculum. Yet it is still to be possible to take mathematics, pure mathematics and further mathematics without let or hindrance - few would want to, admittedly, but that isn't the point. And of course it is hard to overlook the fact that the same students who won't be able to do two art-related A-levels will be able to opt for art and design GNVQ, which is equivalent to two art-related A-levels.

So the breadth argument is to apply in some areas and not others, according to criteria which are not made public, if in fact they actually exist. Then there is the clarity argument. One of the reasons why communication studies is currently under threat is the thought that the title might lead to its being confused with the key skill of that name.

If that is the case it is hard to justify A-level information studies, in case it is confused with the key skill actually of that name - and English and mathematics are frequently confused with communication and application of number (which is sometimes confused with numeracy) anyway, so perhaps we should abolish the lot of them.

If you think that all this means that the QCA is off with the fairies, you may think that it is even more fey about the reduction in the number of A-level titles. This was proposed in order to bring clarity to the consumer, and also - let's be honest - to save money. The debates now being hotly pursued about actual numbers smack of the debate about how many fairies (sorry, angels) could dance on the head of a pin.

No one knows how many A-levels punters want, for the simple reason that none of them wants more than five, as long as they are the five that they want to study. And some of them only want three, or even two, as long as they are the right two or three.

The Government is committed to lifelong learning. It wants everyone to have this, including those whose previous experience of learning at anywhere except the university of life has not been happy or productive.

Like all retailers who want to attract customers, we have to find out from them what they want to buy and offer them that. If we don't, the customers will exercise their right to vote with their feet.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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