The bac taskforce is taking the first steps towards what may be the biggest upheaval in English schools since 1944. Julie Henry reports
CHILDREN at primary school today can look forward to studying a European-style baccalaureate in a shake-up of the secondary curriculum that could lead to the scrapping of A-levels and GCSEs.
Described as "potentially the most far-reaching reforms since 1944", the government strategy announced this week aims to tackle the historic weakness of England's narrow curriculum, improve second-rate work-related courses and motivate bored teenagers who drop out.
A taskforce, headed by former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson, will design an English baccalaureate. This will recognise vocational and academic courses as well as activities outside the classroom, such as volunteering, and reward achievements by pupils at both ends of the ability range.
The move threatens the so-called "gold standard" A-level and the GCSE.
However, Mr Tomlinson, who will report at the end of the year, said he would not rule anything in or out at this stage.
Ministers are keen on elements of the German and French bacs, which include an extended 4,000-word essay. They also admire the the US system where most pupils "graduate" from high school at 18.
Universities and employers will play a vital role in the success of future reforms and will be included on the taskforce.
However, a baccalaureate system is unlikely to see the light of day until the end of the decade at the earliest.
Schools minister David Miliband stressed to pupils, teachers and parents that GCSEs, AS and A2 qualifications will exist for years to come and that the smooth running of this year's exams was the number one priority.
In the short term (200304) foreign languages and design and technology will be made optional at key stage 4. All pupils will be required to undertake work-related or what ministers described as "enterprise" learning. More teenagers will spend a day or two a week in college and on work placements.
The "vocational" label on certain GCSEs and A-levels will be dropped and there will be further development of hybrid GCSEs, where students study a common core but can then chose between academic or applied modules.
But Mr Miliband said the reforms would not mean lower standards.
"It is a credo suited to the 19th century and not the 21st, a credo of weeding people out of education rather than supporting them to succeed. Our challenge is to show that the potential of our young people can be realised. They will not all achieve the same but they can all achieve their potential."
Education Secretary Charles Clarke ruled out raising the leaving age to 18 and said young people should be persuaded to stay on by an exciting curriculum.
He said: "We must reduce the sense of alienation which can exist. People have to want to stay in learning beyond 16: making them stay until 17 or 18 does not solve much."
The proposals were widely welcomed by teacher unions, parents, universities and business. However, ministers were warned against creating a two-tier system where a pupil's future was set in stone at 14.
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "It is vital that we remove the second-class stigma from vocational courses.
But the Government must be careful not to categorise young people into two types. That would invoke the ghosts of the pre-comprehensive past."
Ken Boston, head of the Government's exam watchdog, said the term "gold standard" to describe academic A-levels should be banned because it implied other types of learning were inferior.
"We urgently need more subjects with an industry-based curriculum and with training in the workplace - something which other countries have much to teach us about."
But Damian Green, Conservative education spokesman, said: "Taking pupils out of school for two days a week to have them making tea at a local firm will not be good enough."
14-19: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
* English, maths and science remain compulsory.
* 14 to 16-year-olds will be entitled to learn foreign languages, design and technology, arts and humanities.
* Information technology will remain compulsory for now but increasingly will be taught through other subjects.
* Modern apprenticeships will be improved and expanded so that at least 28 per cent of young people become apprentices by 2004.
* Distinction A-level proposal is dropped in favour of the advanced extension awards taken for the first time last year by 7,000 18-year-olds.
* Better links between schools, colleges and employers.
* Pathfinder projects, which started in January, will assess scale and costs of new 14 to 19 provision.
* Consultation in spring 2003 on extending league tables to include all approved qualifications achieved by 16-year-olds.