THE proposed alterations to the GCSE examination time-table, and the current deliberations over the assessment of modular A-levels, reflect our preoccupation with retaining educational standards, while at the same time enabling more people to reach them.
The GCSE timetable changes, due to take place in 2001, will give candidates in geography and English literature more time to prepare for their exams - and more flexibility to heads and others who have the unenviable task of organising school examinations. Of course, those who represent minority interests dislike the idea of their subjects being moved forward, so that candidates have less time to spend on them. But it seems perfectly sensible to offer the bulk of young people studying the mainstream subjects the opportunity to do as well as they can. And if this helps the Government reach its targets: fine.
Similarly, there will be anxiety over proposals for A-
levels, which would give credit to young people who had completed, perhaps, only one module of a particular subject. But the aim here, surely, is give people points for work done - and to move towards a credit-transfer system which would eventually break down the barriers between academic and vocational qualifications.
Such proposals signal a move away from a certain mean-mindedness, which dictates that "standards" are only maintained by making it as difficult as possible to acquire qualifications.
If we are really serious about educating everyone to as high a level as possible, we need to make our system more forgiving. Giving credit for small achievements which can be built on is one way. Allowing people more time is another. Some "less able" students simply take longer to learn things. Given time, they can reach the same level as the rest - but maybe at 18 instead of 16.
As information technology enables more individuals to take control of their own education, the qualifications and assessment system will have to adapt accordingly. There is no reason why this should be seen as a fall in standards - unless "standards" means a set body of knowledge, learned at a certain age over a fixed amount of time, and examined by a three-hour do-or-die exam whose main function is to stratify people into a hierarchy. Not the most adventurous model for education in the 21st century - nor the most efficient one.