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Less choice in the paper chase

After 18 years we are now au fait with Conservative governments' central message: competition is good for the soul, good for business, good for Britain. The more railway companies, bus operators, mobile-telephone salesmen and hot-dog franchises there are vying for our custom the happier our political masters and mistresses have been.

Schools have, of course, been forced to pitch their stalls in the market-place like everyone else. But this week we are reminded that in at least one area of education - examinations - the Government obviously considers that extra competition can actually drive standards down. Although "choice and diversity" is its catchphrase, it has already indicated that it wants no more than three exam boards (a proposal that the next government would have to endorse). Now we hear that the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority intends to reduce the number of A-level syllabuses by 45 per cent within three years in the interests of greater standardisation.

The announcement has dismayed the exam boards because although they are well used to Government interference in their operations, a slash-and-burn operation of this magnitude is unprecedented. They will indignantly point out that last year's Standards Over Time investigation and the more recent inquiry by the Office for Standards in Education both failed to produce evidence of grade inflation. The boards will also argue that it is not the number of syllabuses that matters but the quality of their content. In any case, many syllabuses have disappeared already; there were, after all, nine A-level boards within recent memory. "You can have any colour as long as it's black. That's the sort of sales line that the Government seems to want us to offer schools," one aggrieved exam board official said on Wednesday.

Publishers will also be gravely concerned about this development as many textbooks are tied to individual syllabuses. But even teachers and their subject associations who have no financial interest in the perpetuation of specific syllabuses will worry about what lies ahead, even though they accept that some courses are expendable.

Secondary teachers will sigh at the prospect of further change, knowing that it can take three or even four years to adjust to a new GCSE or A-level syllabus. They will also dread the prospect of losing syllabuses that seem to be tailor-made for their children or their school. The Government and more jaundiced members of the media may suspect that schools look for "easier" papers in order to boost their A-level scores, but in fact heads of department invariably choose a course on the basis of how it approaches their subject. Nuffield sciences and Salters chemistry, for example, offer distinctive educational experiences. Many mathematicians, on the other hand, favour project syllabuses and they will worry that it is precisely this sort of option that will disappear. Equally, some heads of maths are apprehensive that all courses will be modular in future.

But what unites all these groups is the fear that yet again, in what may very well be their last month of power, Conservative ministers are rushing into another reform with undue haste. Is it too much to hope that the next education minister will be able to find the brake pedal as well as the accelerator?

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