The confirmation this week that sixth-formers will merely be "encouraged" to broaden their advanced-level studies by the creation of a new one-year "advanced supplementary" level will disappoint those hoping for something more visionary, while providing more ammunition for those who fear standards are being undermined. The Government's modest proposals could offer the starting point for a gradual move towards post-16 reform. But in practice they are likely to have little impact without a clearer commitment from ministers to fund the inescapable extra costs, or some demonstration by universities and employers that they value broader education.
We have, of course, been round this loop before, with countless failed attempts to reform an over-specialised and over-academic advanced level curriculum. All have run into the same objections: the fear that reduced specialisation at A-level would mean more expensive four-year degree courses; the additional costs of the extra teaching and examining required to broaden the curriculum; and the reluctance of Governments to expose themselves to criticisms that they were tampering with the "gold standard". (Kenneth Baker famously rejected the Higginson report's proposals for five leaner A-levels before it was even presented to him.) This Government is no exception, it seems. It is prepared, however, to edge towards a broader first-year sixth while insisting that this will not affect the traditional three A-level tariff. Since course-designers have apparently been briefed to pitch the new AS at a level between GCSE and A-level, it would seem that greater breadth across different subjects is indeed going to be at the expense of some depth. Whether that is a price worth paying for a broader education and an earlier indication of likely A-level performance for university applicants is the judgment that needs to be made.
The practical calculation more likely to take place, however, is whether sixth forms and colleges can afford to teach the extra hours required to provide five courses where once there were three, along with the new literacy, numeracy and IT qualifications envisaged for all.
If the answers to that are negative, we may see little change. Unless, of course, students show themselves willing to vote with their feet in favour of greater variety - and extra work. In the competitive post-16 market, their response could be decisive - either way.