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AS-levels are great - really

Despite some flaws, Curriculum 2000 has done much to help less-privileged sixth formers, says Peter Newcombe

Curriculum 2000 is a success! The new AS-level is a success! Key Skills are a success!

Dangerous heresy it would appear at a time when, accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the reforms, barely a year old, are being castigated from so many quarters.

I wonder why some of the loudest, most publicised voices of protest are coming from centres of privilege (for example Winchester College and The London Oratory School) and from schools with small sixth forms?

There has been constant reference to the traditional sixth-form experience which consisted of a relaxed year in the lower sixth (a privilege for having survived O-level or GCSE) followed by a more intensive year in the upper-sixth, the whole two-year experience interspersed with enriching episodes (Duke of Edinburgh award, work experience, sport, drama, together with imaginative and creative departures from the tiresome syllabus, led by talented teachers in touch with the true ideals of education).

Well, all of that may be fine and dandy, but does it really represent the reality of life among most sixth formers in the last 20 years?

Long before Curriculum 2000 changes most students in sixth-form and general FE colleges - particularly the successful open-access colleges championing opportunities for the many, rather than for the select few - were painfully aware of the need for an intermediate qualification, midway in the two-year continuum of advanced level.

For many students from families with little experience of further, let alone higher education, the two-year commitment with no mid-point assessment was high risk. For students coming from an educational background where achievement at GCSE is problematic or unfulfilled (yet the potential is clear) an intermediate AS programme has proved to be immensely valuable.

Curriculum 2000 is not the villain of the piece. Life changed for thousands of young people in 199293 with the incorporation of colleges into the new FE sector. The enrichment programmes were savaged by the then Department for Education and Employment and the Further Education Funding Council, and are only now slowly re-emerging.

The reality of life for most 16 to 19-year-olds was already having a strong effect on the traditional sixth-form experience. Most of the students in my college need part-time jobs to sustain their presence in education at all.

Students at my college have responded magnificently to the challenge and range of new opportunities. Most have successfully sustained four AS-levels, and they have chosen subjects which broaden and deepen their experience. They have (pending final decisions and exam results) maintained most of their subject choices from year 1 to year 2, and they have successfully developed their key skills, particularly in IT.

There are some problems. The impact on teachers has in some cases almost doubled the assessment and coursework load. Some syllabuses have been flawed.

From the FE perspective it is becoming clear that there are many vested interests wishing to denigrate Curriculum 2000. Many small school sixth forms may be unable to deliver the reforms and are pouring scorn on the new curriculum.

Such a lobby lacks credibility when it is so often based on special pleading from highly protected and subsidised centres. It is curious that so many schools are complaining when their level of post-16 funding is so advantageous (in the case of North East Lincolnshire, a difference of at least pound;1,000 per head for every student over the age of 16).

The real problem lies elsewhere. The testing regime in schools is often deeply depressing for the children and teachers. The constant bureaucratic pressure on teachers, together with a misguided approach to funding and recruitment, has destroyed the fabric of education.

Let's hang on to the good that has been created by Curriculum 2000, reform those parts that need attention and keep the needs of the many at the forefront rather than pandering to the select few.

Peter Newcombe is principal of Franklin College, Grimsby

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