Reform could lift the uncertainty hanging over sixth-form curriculum

29th August 1997 at 01:00
The headlines are conflicting and confusing: "A-levels face axe in education revolution" (Guardian, August 13); "A-levels are here to stay" (TES, August 15). They only add to the feeling of weariness for those who have been around long enough to see N and F (or was it Q and F?) in the 1970s and Higginson and AS level in the 1980s. Attempts to broaden A-levels have come and gone, but little has changed and I am beginning to despair of anything ever happening.

Personally I am attracted to the idea of a British baccalaureate, but the need for reform is now so acute that I would stick with A and AS-levels provided we can have a broader curriculum post-16. But if A-levels are indeed here to stay, we are going to need some kind of intervention to create a broader curriculum, because clearly the marketplace is not doing the trick. Until universities demand (or are required to demand) a wider range of subjects for entry, the three-subject pattern will endure.

A broader curriculum will also require extra resources. English sixth-formers spend a ridiculously small proportion of their time on their core studies - 24 out of 40 periods in a typical school. So much free study time is neither necessary nor desirable - but to fill it with productive study will need teachers and that means money.

There are serious sums involved: Pounds 600 million according to the Secondary Heads Association, and this at a time when the Government is seeking to focus resources on underachievement at earlier ages.

The earlier attempts at A-level reform are said to have foundered on the resistance of the universities. In these cost-conscious days of local management of schools, is reform again to founder, this time for shortage of cash? When reform was first attempted in the 1970s there were about 100, 000 A-level entries a year. Now there are about 700,000 a year, and A-level has changed from an elite qualification for specialists to a mass qualification at the conclusion of secondary education. Surely the time has come when the pressure for its reform is irresistible? Whether it is the radical baccalaureate or the conservative Dearing model, the important thing is to get on and do it, and remove the uncertainty that has hung over the sixth-form curriculum.

JOHN HOLMAN

Watford Grammar School for Boys Rickmansworth Road Watford

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