The Government has dropped its most objectionable ideas for replacing A-levels and come up with a pretty decent vision for 14-19 schooling, writes John Dunford.
At last a government has listened to teachers' views about the future shape of 14-19 education. As a result, we can look forward to reforms that will be much stronger than those set out in the Green Paper 12 months ago.
Revised plans, announced this week, include: more flexibility at key stage 4; stronger vocational courses; no distinction A-grade at A-level; a "foundation" level for any overarching certificate, so a broader range of students get a bac-style award; and a review of exams for the 14 to 19 age group. These issues were consistent themes throughout the 58 consultation meetings held around the country last summer. All are included in the government response, which has considerably more strengths than weaknesses.
The "matriculation diploma" proposed in the Green Paper (which would have given pupils a single overall certificate for a combination of existing qualifications) found favour with few schools, colleges, universities or employers and has rightly been rejected. Nevertheless, the principle of of an overall certificate - an "English baccalaureate"- is widely welcomed, provided it is greater than the sum of its parts. Only if it adds value will universities and employers take it seriously, so it is vital that these two groups sign up to the reforms. The weak reaction of universities to Curriculum 2000 is too recent in the collective memory.
It is therefore with considerable enthusiasm that we shall participate in the development of a a bac-style award at foundation, intermediate and advanced level. The critical issues for an English bac - and the rocks on which the matriculation diploma foundered - are the breadth of the curriculum students should be compelled to study and the nature of the added value of the award. This added value element could be key skills, critical thinking, work-related learning, community service and much more.
It must be enough to be worthwhile, but not so much that the curriculum becomes overcrowded.
Much has happened in the arcane world of assessment since the Green Paper was published and there is a welcome recognition in this week's document that major changes are necessary in 14-19 assessment. Fundamental questions are being asked about the purpose and nature of our exams. The taskforce, under the chairmanship of Mike Tomlinson, has a unique opportunity to devise a sensible and manageable system. Not before time.
The proposals to create more flexibility at KS4 are likely to be put into effect in many schools this September. Modern languages and technology will become voluntary from the age of 14 creating space for work-related learning. Many schools will, however, want to keep languages compulsory for those not needing vocational options. Some, including independent schools, will keep compulsory languages, because they open up so many career opportunities.
But there are disappointments. It still feels like we will end up with two systems - key stage 4 and 16-19 - rather than a truly coherent 14-19. There is, however, a hint that 14-19 funding may come from a single source, which could lead to a battle for control of key stage 4 between the Learning and Skills Council and local education authorities. It is ironic that, after many years of hesitation, the Government has put forward 14-19 proposals at the time that the LSC has taken over post-16 planning and funding.
Another disappintment is the failure to scrap league tables. In any sensible 14-19 system, exam tables for 16 and 18-year-olds would go. Alas, the DfES will offer no more than an undertaking to continue to work on "these complex issues". Ministers must recognise the powerful case for abolition and the sooner the better.
Greater flexibility at KS4 and lack of clarity about the components of an English bac seem to have put paid to the idea of a broad and balanced curriculum post-14. For much of the past 20 years, we have struggled nationally - and in individual schools - to retain some flexibility in an increasingly broad KS4 curriculum. It has proved to be beyond the imagination of the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency to design a curriculum that has both flexibility and breadth. With 14-16 learning arranged in two-year courses, this is impossible. The key to combining flexibility and breadth lies in a modular curriculum structure, opening up the possibility of breadth over time in the 14-19 phase by enabling students to tailor their own course by mixing and matching subjects. The latest proposals have failed to embrace this idea, but it must be on the taskforce's agenda, as it will be vital to the success of a baccalaureate structure.
This week's paper sends out a strong signal that the national curriculum will effectively end at 14, followed by greater flexibility, clearer learning pathways and better continuity across the age 16 barrier. It is a step in the right direction.
John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.