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A-level shake-up fails to impress inspectors

Curriculum 2000 has narrowed students' study and Ofsted wants it changed. Michael Shaw reports.

REPLACING A-levels with AS and A2s has failed to broaden students'

education and narrowed teaching within subjects, inspectors said today.

The Office for Standards in Education reports that the Curriculum 2000 overhaul has delivered "at best modest" changes to students' studies in its first two years, undermining the drive to widen the curriculum.

Inspectors found that the new curriculum cut time available for individual subjects in Year 12 in a third of the 100 schools studied and added to lesson preparation and marking.

"Teachers have little time and scope to teach beyond the immediate requirements of the specifications, however important they consider that greater breadth to be for the long-term benefit of their students," the inspectors said.

Very few schools and colleges required pupils to pick contrasting AS subjects, and many chose a narrow "suite" such as related sciences.

"Such a reduction in breadth nullifies the main purpose of Curriculum 2000 and suggests a lack of commitment to the underlying principles," said the inspectors.

Other findings include:

* Sixth-formers' involvement in sport, arts and other extra-curricular activities has declined in more than three-quarters of the schools inspected.

* The separate teaching of key skills has "not been a general success".

Many schools have reduced their commitment because of poor results in 2001 and uncertainty about universities' attitudes.

* Curriculum 2000 has forced schools to spend substantial amounts on exam fees.

* A rigid divide remains between pupils who take academic qualifications and vocational ones, despite the wider availability of vocational courses.

* Many teachers are still uncertain about when pupils should "cash-in" AS results.

Inspectors praised teachers for being "almost always expert, well planned and enthusiastic" and for teaching the new curriculum very well in most schools and colleges. But, they warned that teachers were unduly prescriptive in a fifth of lessons, giving pupils too little opportunity to learn for themselves.

Curriculum 2000 sparked huge controversy in 2001 as schools struggled to timetable the exams, and was at the heart of last year's regrading furore, but has so far escaped fundamental criticism.

In his report into the regrading controversy, former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson said students had welcomed Curriculum 2000 because it gave them the chance to study a broader range of subjects.

The Secondary Heads Association also welcomed the opportunity for students to gain a qualification after just a year's study.

Chief inspector David Bell said: "Despite the added burdens placed on schools, colleges and pupils, Curriculum 2000 has achieved much less than was intended. The range of subjects taken has not broadened significantly, and the scope of teaching within subjects has narrowed, as teachers have concentrated on course specifications."

Ofsted called for the Government and schools to take action on 11 recommendations; these include encouraging students to mix and match their qualifications and providing schemes of work for teachers that allow them greater responsibility for lesson content.

Curriculum 2000: implementation is at www.ofsted.gov.uk

CURRICULUM CHANGES

Curriculum 2000 was the overhaul of post-16 education introduced in September 2000.

It followed ministers' complaints that the curriculum was too narrow and inflexible, preventing students from competing with European peers.

The main changes were the AS-level and A2 exams which each count for 50 per cent of the marks of the full A-level.

Pupils are encouraged to take at least four AS exams in Year 12 and then at least three A2 exams the following year.

Curriculum 2000 also introduced new vocational qualifications, "advanced extension" tests for more able students, and key skills qualifications to encourage an improvement in communication, number application and computing.

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