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Sir Ron and the great However

If John Major's dad was a trapeze artist, Sir Ron Dearing's must surely have been president of the Magic Circle. In the saga of 16-19 curricular reform, Sir Ron appears to have achieved what his predecessors never even attempted: to reconcile the clamour for a new approach with the Government's long-standing insistence that A-levels remain unchanged.

We have now had time to digest the Report on the Review of Qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds. All the elements that educationists and employers have so long advocated for the 16-19 curriculum are there. Greater breadth and balance. More emphasis on process and skills. Opportunities to combine academic and vocational courses. However . . . Government support for these initiatives has had to be bought by making them optional, not an integral part of each student's programme. This is the let-out for the academic sixth form of the public and selective school.

Dearing's dilemma is clearly seen with respect to the widespread concern at A-level students' lack of basic skills in communication, application of number and use of information technology.

The report acknowledges that syllabuses need reviewing to remedy this problem. But the review must be achieved "without distorting the integrity of individual subjects" - which is precisely the insuperable barrier that such reviews have encountered.

What an absurd situation. We have an academic curriculum so narrowly subject-based and content-laden that students do not acquire the general life and work skills they need to apply their knowledge. But because of the "historical pre-eminence of A-levels" we are powerless to do anything.

The real giveaway of the Dearing proposals is the re-naming of general national vocational qualifications as "applied A-levels". Nothing could better demonstrate that the academic route to qualifications is to remain theoretical, pure and untainted by contact with the real world.

The Government has been concerned that the development of modular schemes, the accreditation of coursework and the introduction of alternative forms of assessment have accommodated students outside the academic elite for whom A-levels were designed. Part of Sir Ron's brief was therefore to get tough on standards. He has responded with a set of proposals designed to make A-levels less flexible and accessible.

The prospect is deeply depressing to those of us who have worked to find ways of combating the stultifying aridity of traditional A-level syllabuses and their outdated preoccupation with the historical development of compartmentalised factual knowledge. If the Dearing reforms were to be unequivocally applied to actual A-level syllabuses they would deserve the accolades of the past week. Indeed, if one felt confident that the options for breadth of study, skills acquisition and mixed academic and vocational courses would be extensively taken up by A-level students, then there would be grounds for modest celebration.

One suspects, however, that it will be the additional academic options that will be given priority by those currently following the academic route. This will be a big step backwards. The proposed AS half-subjects and S-level papers were both features of Higher School Certificate. By the end of the century the sixth-form curriculum of public schools and a reintroduced selective system looks like being indistinguishable from that of 50 years ago.

No wonder the politicians are pleased. Perhaps Sir Ron's principle achievement has been to catch precisely the mood of the two major parties in an election year. His report provides both Conservatives and New Labour with the opportunity to espouse the idea of radical reform while reassuring the privileged classes that nothing has changed.

Eric Macfarlane was principal of Queen Mary's College, and then Basingstoke College, from 1971-1989; he isnow adviser in the staff development and training unit, University CollegeLondon.

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