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Letters extra: key skills need reform or scrapping

As we approach the end of the first year of the new sixth-form curriculum, the crescendo of complaints about it should be enough to damage the eardrums of ministers.

The concern has centred on modularisation and AS-levels, but the key skills initiative has added substantially to the angst of students, parents and teachers.

In centres where key skills have been adopted, the workload of portfolios and exam preparation has been substantial. Most schools and colleges realised quickly that reliance on "mapping" work across subjects created major problems and imposed unacceptable burdens on staff already struggling with the new AS. In many centres, key skills classes have been imposed on students, especially once the phenomenal failure rates on early exams had been recognised. Supervision and management of portfolios have absorbed much of the time of pastoral tutors.

Uncertainty about the value of the new qualification has prevented students from being motivated by it. However, the blame cannot be easily placed on higher education for failure to give a clear message about the value of key skills. So long as a significant proportion of students are not taking key skills, universities can only choose who to discriminate against. They have three options:

  • include key skills points in all their offers, thereby discriminating against students not taking them
  • exclude key skills, discriminating against those whose time and effort on key skills might havenbsp;impaired AS and A2 results
  • make different offers to students according to whether or not they took key skills, effectively making higher offers to those who do.
    • The universities are in a no win situation and the wide variety of different approaches in prospectuses has only added confusion and further demotivated students.

      Assessment standards worsen the gloom: while some boards will not announce passfail rates, alarming statements by examiners about standards and leaked results give a clear impression of tough and inconsistent qualifications. Students applying to higher education may largely feel it wiser not to be entered and risk the stigma of failure, as there is little or no penalty in university offers.

      Some centres have reported worrying results anomalies on tests, including a tendency for students taking tests after their friends to fare significantly better - the volume of entrants means that the same test can be taken by batches of students over a number of days.

      Many schools are now considering giving up key skills. General further education and sixth-form colleges cannot make the same decision as their funding would be cut under the funding rules of the Learning and Skills Council.

      So far, no minister has stood up and said there is an urgent need to review key skills and the modularisation of A levels. Now is the time for new ministers to make their mark.

      For key skills the only options are to scrap them or make them work: the latter needs review of workloads, clarification of assessment standards and their imposition on all advanced level students. The present "do it if you want to" only perpetuates the problem.

      Peter Lynas Birkdale, Southport

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