THE Government's Easter message on the reform of the post-16 curriculum has not been well received. There is disappointment at its half-heartedness and dismay at the perceived failure to articulate a larger vision - all the more surprising from a party which made education its number one priority.
But on second reading minister Baroness Blackstone's words give some grounds for guarded optimism. The Joint Associations' Curriculum Group (JACG), which represents the heads and principals in all state and independent secondary schools as well as further education colleges, despite sharing the disappointment, see the seeds of more fundamental reforms in the proposals.
The "horizontal" AS-level, based upon first-year work, is a much-needed first step towards breaking down the monolithic A-level into more manageable steps. Standardising modular A-levels and the new half General National Vocational Qualification courses on the basis of six modules is welcome, as is the intention to certificate individual module results - surely the first faltering steps towards the development of a credit framework.
The minister's general support for the introduction of the first three key skills - in number, communication and information technology - is to be applauded, but there is no clear financial commitment to the funds needed for extra tuition and staff training.
A unified A to E grading system for A-level and GNVQ is another overdue move, but maintaining the distinction between titles is disappointing. An overarching certificate is teasingly held out as still to be played for, but the stated reluctance to break down qualifications further than the three-unit groups proposed seems strangely at odds with the decision to certificate each module.
Our major disappointment in these proposals is the Government's insistence that the new AS will be the basis for a five-subject curriculum norm at A-levelGNVQ. The idea that a "typical" three A-level student will now take three A-levels and two AS courses does not square with our understanding of the capabilities of many students and of the economics of running schools and colleges.
The first year of such a programme would be equivalent to taking five A-levels. This is a tall order for our most capable students and is certainly beyond the majority. Fifteen modules in the first year, as opposed to nine, represents a 67 per cent increase in "volume" and this, especially in the college sector, cannot be accommodated within existing classes.
Unless extra funding is provided, this would cut a swathe through pastoral provision, enrichment activities, private study and other non-classroom education. These are the essential ingredients that distinguish the best of our post-16 education from some of the treadmill 30-hour continental patterns that seem so beguiling to the minister.
If, as we expect, schools and colleges and, more importantly, students, do not immediately sign up to the five-track curriculum, it will be disingenuous if the Government interprets this as the indifference of the "market" and uses it to do nothing more.
Despite our scepticism about these proposals our group would welcome arrangements allowing students to take a five-track curriculum. We have made our own counter-proposals based on the idea of a two-module AS.
Five subjects in the first year would then consist of 10 modules. Students could continue with two of these subjects to the full A-level or GNVQ in the second year - a further eight modules. Many students, in response to the demands of higher education, would want to continue with three subjects in the second year, but this would depend on resources.
Timetabling implications need to be considered carefully, and JACG is undertaking feasibility trials in some schools and colleges.
After so many stillborn initiatives, the group has learned to be patient and we remain optimistic. Our glass is now half-full and there are hints of a top-up by 2002.
If the module becomes the new unit of educational currency, if higher education can move beyond its rhetoric and actually begin to demand key skills and breadth from applicants, if the overarching diploma can heal the pernicious divide between "academic" and "vocational" courses and if the Government can find the money for extra tuition and staff-training - then it is just possible our bits-and-pieces provision might one day resemble a thought-out system, might be truly responsive to students' needs and might provide a basis for lifelong learning.
Dennis Lavelle is chairman of the Joint Associations' Curriculum Group