The Government's reform of post-16 qualifications may be put in jeopardy by funding shortfalls, reports Rosie Waterhouse.
LAURA Hickman and Keely Martin (pictured above) are model millennium students; early pioneers of mixing and matching academic and vocational qualifications to suit their needs.
Both students are taking a combination of an advanced general national vocational qualification in health and social care, an A-level in social policy and the new key skills course in communication, numeracy and information technology.
"This mix gives me practical hands-on experience, an academic qualification which might help me get into university and key skills that will be useful for both further study and when I get a job," said Laura, aged 17.
Keely, 18, also liked the breadth of knowledge and experience which she hopes will smooth her eventual transition into employment as either a policewoman or a nurse.
Their tailor-made courses at Solihull College near Birmingham in the West Midlands, could act as examples for other schools and colleges to follow next September when the Government's radical new blueprint for 16-19 education - Curriculum 2000 - comes into effect.
But The TES has discovered that plans for this ambitious shake-up of A-levels and other post-16 examinations could founder unless schools and colleges are given more cash to deliver the changes.
The proposals were first published in October 1997 in a consultation paper, Qualifying for Success, which followed Lord Dearing's recommendations for reform in 1996.
Education and employment minister Baroness Blackstone would have preferred to abolish A-levels - which she considered elitist - and introduce a French-style baccalaureate with students studying a wider range of subjects. The Prime Minister insisted A-levels - beloved by traditionalists and middle-class parents - must stay. Curriculum 2000 is the compromise.
Announcing the "improvements" to the A-level and GNVQ curriculum Baroness Blackstone said: "These ensure that standards are raised and encourage A-level students to pursue broader and more demanding studies while increasing choice and flexibility for sixth-formers.
"The current system has been criticised for many years for being over-specialised and inflexible. Compared with our international competitors young people in England tend to follow a very narrow programme of study at advanced level. Those who want to follow broader programmes often find it hard to do so. This does not serve our young people, or the country, well.
"Students should be able to combine elements of academic and vocational study. Too many have been put off by the relatively low status of vocational studies. Reform is long overdue."
But the new curriculum is optional and wholesale reform of what schools and colleges teach could remain out of reach without extra funds, headteachers and college principals are now warning the minister.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, is unequivocal. "Schools are not going to be able to deliver the broader curriculum of academic and vocational qualifications unless they have substantial capital investment and additional annual funding.
"You simply cannot construct a timetable which offers a very much broader qualifications framework with the new AS levels and GNVQs without extra staff and extra money for training staff."
He added: "It's very significant that the Further Education Funding Council has recognised the colleges' need for additional money when they issued a circular in July. But nobody at the education department has breathed a word about school sixth forms needing extra cash."
But even the colleges are worried the extra funds which will be available to them - an extra pound;255 million in 19992000 rising to an extra pound;470m in 20002001- will not be enough.
Judith Norrington of the Association of Colleges said: "We welcome the concept of creating tailored-learning packages embodied in the curriculum structure but we have serious concerns about how it will be funded.
"The sector believes that unless they set funding to fully recognise all of the Curriculum 2000 requirements it will be extremely hard to deliver them."
The association's response to the FEFC's proposed funding arrangements in a circular in July warns the planned increase in funds will not match the increase in teaching input required to deliver the broader range of AS levels, A-levels and improved GNVQs.
"The proposals thus imply a further efficiency squeeze on colleges," the AOC suggests.
In fact that is exactly what David Blunkett expects. This is revealed in a letter from Roger Dawe, director general for further and higher education at the DFEE to professor David Melville, chief executive of the FEFC in December 1998.
The letter said: "The Secretary of State is concerned that funding arrangements from 2000-01 should recognise and facilitate these reforms. The department expects the additional costs to be met in part by improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of colleges, including through larger class sizes and increased collaboration between providers where this is possible.
Unlike the majority of schools and colleges. Solihull College is already geared up to delivering Curriculum 2000.
It started tailoring courses to individual specifications 10 years ago when, instead of telling prospective students what was on offer, they started asking what they wanted. More than rigid packages of purely academic or vocational qualifications was frequently the reply.
Hence students like Laura Hickman and Keely Martin were able to design their own curriculum.
Angela Myers, vice-principal, is concerned that in Curriculum 2000 key skills are optional: she believes they should be integral for students who do not possess them. "They are absolutely crucial to enable students to adapt to the forever changing needs of future employers," she said.
Although schools and colleges maintain they are eager to deliver Curriculum 2000, they warn that without a realistic evaluation of how much it will cost and a greater commitment to principles such as key skills, the Solihull model could remain the exception rather than the rule.
a new AS (advanced subsidiary) qualification, representing the first half of the full A-level, designed to encourage the take-up of more subjects in the first year of post-16 study - these would be taken in addition to the usual A-levels; up to five AS levels and three A-levels are
class tests (advanced extension or AE) in certain key subject areas within the A-level system to stretch the most able students, replacing the current S (special) levels;
the introduction of a new three A-level syllabus, normally made up of six units, offering candidates
the choice of linear (end-of-course) or modular (staged) assessment courses available in all subjects;
some changes in coursework limits for A-levels (with a ceiling of 30 per cent in most subjects) together with a requirement for synoptic tests at the end of all courses, assessing understanding of whole syllabus, which had not been required previously);
upgraded and more flexible GNVQs to encourage combining academic and vocational study, based on more rigorous assessment regime, including a six unit advanced GNVQ equivalent in
size and demand to a single A-
a new key skills qualification (encouraged but optional) to enable all young people to develop the essential skills of communication, application of number and information technology.