Kept in the dark as exam choice looms;Another voice;Opinion;News amp; opinion

5th November 1999 at 00:00
NEXT YEAR my daughter becomes a guinea-pig. Now in her GCSE year, she is scheduled to be among the first group of students who, in September 2000, will start working for the new AAS levels.

When the Government announced its intention to broaden the sixth-form curriculum, the idea seemed good in theory. So when, a few weeks ago, I attended a parents' evening to help decide my daughter's A-level choices, I was looking forward to hearing about its implementation.

Far from being enlightened, I left with the nagging thought that this may be yet another educational reform rushed through without the necessary pieces in place. It wasn't what I was told, but what I could not be told.

Superficially, the changes may not seem great. While early reports mentioned five subjects, the norm is likely to be four. "Five is too many, it's impractical," the headmistress informed us - a sentiment she said was shared by most other schools.

But what looms large is the extra dozen or so AS exams that will greet my daughter and her peers in their first sixth-form year, the results of which are likely to influence university offers. In return for the added pressure, it's not unreasonable for students to expect sufficient information to make the right choice of subject.

Instead, too many questions remain. How will the new exams affect university entrance requirements? Will admissions tutors reward students who show diversity or will it be a case of never-mind-the-subject-feel-the-grade?

Where "key skills" fit in, I have no idea. They weren't mentioned at the parents' evening. Ihave since found out through the Universities and Colleges Admissions System key skills will be counted along with other qualifications. But will they be integrated into the A-level curriculum or will separate lessons be timetabled? Where, for instance, does IT come in the history of art?

Finally, I had presumed that teachers would by now possess the new syllabuses, in order to guide their students, but many are still in draft form.

In the next few weeks we can expect announcements from on high which may clear up some uncertainty. But I wonder if enough time has been left for details to filter down to schools, pupils and parents.

While the new system encourages greater breadth, it is another thing for students to take advantage. It may be desirable to have scientists studying Shakespeare and artists learning about evolution but since the Government has wisely steered clear of prescribing content, the incentive for a varied choice of subjects must come from the universities.

At present, it is natural that students will choose a combination of subjects they feel most comfortable with, irrespective of the notional merit of any artsscience balance. What would be unfair, however, is if when it comes to university entrance they are penalised for showing insufficient diversity in their AAS level choices, without being forewarned.

So, the onus is on universities to declare their hand. Of course, policy will differ between institutions and even departments - that doesn't matter. What does is that relevant information is available and accessible to teachers.

If breadth is important, one route could be further explored. I was intrigued to discover from UCAS that it is possible to take a single stand-alone module in maths, equivalent to a sixth of an A-level or a third of an AS. The example given was of a statistics paper, which could open the door to someone who wanted to take a degree in biology but lacked A-level maths. Why not extend this option to other subjects?

If modular degree courses allow greater flexibility, then why not in schools? You could allow students the equivalent of, say, one AS which they could design a la carte by combining modules from three separate subjects.

In the meantime, my daughter has until the middle of next term to choose her subjects and we feel as if we are on an unfamiliar road with an incomplete map. I hope the picture is clearer by then.

If not, there is nothing sacrosanct about a September 2000 start, other than the Government's wish to flourish the sword in its crusade against conservatism. But children shouldn't come second to political impatience.

Simon Rocker is a journalist with the

Jewish Chronicle

Another Voice SIMON


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