The idea of a "short course" is not new. They have been tried - and tested - in many contexts beyond key stage 4 of the national curriculum. They are offered in colleges, adult education centres, businesses and universities in various shapes and sizes - short, intensive or sandwich. Nor are they entirely new for schools - for instance, an additional modern foreign language can be offered in flexible ways.
Many courses are shorter than the 100 hours or so associated with the new short-course GCSE qualification recently approved by Education Secretary Gillian Shephard in design technology, IT, modern foreign languages and religious education.
The main concerns expressed by schools have not focused on whether a short course can be a good quality learning experience but have dwelt rather on practical questions, such as timetabling, the market currency of new qualifications and, above all, the recognition of achievement in performance tables.
SCAA publicly recognised the importance of these questions by seeking views through the national curriculum consultation a year ago. Three options were described; combined subject GCSEs (for example, design technology combined with art or business studies), free-standing GCSE (short course) and vocational qualifications in the GNVQ family.
The general response was low key, but each option attracted some support and some schools indicated they would like to be able to use all three. In the event, Ministers accepted SCAA's recommendation that the first two options should be available for courses starting in 1996 and that SCAA and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCQV) should give further advice on the prospect of accrediting modern foreign languages, design technology and IT through the GNVQ system.
On languages, SCAA and NCVQ have been working on GNVQNVQ units that could meet the needs of pupils of all abilities at key stage 4. This development offers the prospect of pupils meeting the requirements of the national curriculum while gaining credit in a language in a form that could complement, and possibly contribute to, a broader vocational qualification pre or post-16.
In the technology area, SCAA and NCVQ are now preparing, with schools and local education authorities, for the first pilot courses of a part one GNVQ in manufacturing. The general availability of part one GNVQs will depend on progress with the pilot.
SCAA is also currently consulting on a draft criteria for GCSE (short course) in RE. The criteria will require syllabuses from exam boards which are compatible with local agreed syllabuses, as well as meeting the needs of voluntary schools. Final versions, approved by SCAA, should be available to schools in February 1996 for examination in June 1997.
Schools can therefore plan to work with 5 per cent (free-standing short courses), 10 per cent (full subject and combined-subject GCSEs), and, potentially, 20 per cent (part one GNVQ) curriculum components. The underlying premise is that courses do not have to be the shape and size of a traditional GCSE to be worthwhile.
Gillian Shephard has said she is prepared to amend the "exceptions" regulations of the Education Reform Act to allow schools the further flexibility of offering short-course accreditation at the end of Year 10. This arrangement - which the examining bodies have said they will make possible from 1997 - gives schools the additional freedom to plan end-on short courses, so that 15-year-olds can usefully spend a year taking one subject, expecting to move on to another in Year 11.
New approaches to timetabling will be needed if schools are to make the most of the potential that the new key stage 4 curriculum presents. Responding to many requests from schools, SCAA is currently working with school managers to collect curriculum and timetabling ideas which look helpful. SCAA would be pleased to hear from any school which has curriculum ideas it wants to share.
SCAA will now work with the awarding bodies to ensure that the new syllabuses are of good quality and not over-packed. In this way, schools will be able to take advantage of the flexibility promised by the national curriculum review and arrange working programmes which incorporate statutory and optional courses in new and stimulating ways.
Keith Weller is SCAA's assistant chief executive with responsibility for key stage 4