Michael Duffy launches a series on planning for choice and diversity by talking to schools as they prepare for next autumn's changes
The slimmed down key stage 4 curriculum has to be in place from next September. In spite of the new flexibility and choice that Dearing promised, it is clear from this month's School Curriculum and Assessment Authority discussion paper, Managing the Curriculum at Key Stage 4, that implementation will be far from plain sailing.
Once a school has reached agreement on broad curriculum principles, the paper says, "many practical points will need attention." Some arrangements, current and planned, "may well fall short of the curriculum time required". For many schools "transitional steps" will be required.
We contacted a sample of secondary schools and asked them how their planning stood. None had yet seen the SCAA publication, but most heads thought it was coming too late to lead to significant new thinking for September.
One head said: "We make curriculum offers to year 9 pupils and their parents at the end of January and plan and cost the detail at budget time in March. We can't wait for SCAA."
For several schools the key issue was the budget, not the planning. "Planning change is fine when your budget's rising," Rod Walker, head of Larkmead School, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, said. "When it's reducing, and the roll is falling, it's a nightmare. We know what we need to do, but in our situation it's on the cards that the governors will want to stick to the status quo."
The head of Glaisdale School, Nottingham, said: "We've done our planning. With a county budget cut of 10 per cent in prospect, our chief concern is to hang on somehow to the ground we've won."
All the schools were familiar with the statutory requirements and all of them had curriculum review groups working with governor input or support on possible solutions. All of them had reviewed the length and pattern of the teaching week ("we knew as early as 1993 that we couldn't play around with the old jigsaw any more," a head in Gwynedd said) and six of the seven had moved to a more flexible timetabling allocation, typically offering 25 one hour periods or a variation of it. The main problem, as they saw it, was to accommodate compulsory technology and a modern foreign language for all their key stage 4 pupils (and find extra teaching and resources for it) without sacrificing choice on the one hand or breadth and balance on the other.
Rod Walker at Larkmead School and Jean Lebrecht at Hornsey School for Girls in Camden, north London, both foresaw a squeeze on arts and the humanities as a result of the Dearing changes. "There is an issue of principle at stake, as well as practicality. Getting the solution right is more important than meeting September's deadline," Jean Lebrecht said.
In theory, they said, there's a clear solution. Short courses, promised as GCSE qualifications from 1996 in art, music, history, geography, religious education, physical education, and IT as well as in foreign language and technology - and available, schools have been told, both as one year "fat" courses and two year "thin" courses - would nominally resolve most of the classic quart into a pint pot problem.
However, there are far too many unanswered questions about the syllabuses that will be offered ("still not available, though we need them now", said Jean Lebrecht), their suitability over different ability ranges, and their value and credibility. Both schools want to know more about accreditation: whether two short courses in unrelated subjects will count as a single GCSE, for instance, and if so, how the different scores will be aggregated. Both are concerned about the potential effect of short GCSEs on school league table ratings. "I can't for the life of me understand," Rod Walker said, "why ministers still hold out for the five plus grades A to C as the GCSE reporting standard. Why not a points score, on the A-level table model? That at least would make our planning easier."
The other major concern among the schools consulted - what use to make of the part one General National Vocational Qualification courses now being piloted - was for Rod Walker something of an academic question. Oxfordshire's financial situation made further big cuts in the school's budget almost certain. Compulsory foreign language and compulsory technology meant more staff in those areas and the probability of more redundancy in the others. "We can't fit vocational courses in without putting other subjects and teachers at risk, and in this context that's not on."
At Glaisdale School, an 11 to 16 comprehensive with 630 pupils on the roll, it was vocational provision that was seen to be most at risk . The school already met the new requirements, headteacher David Higgins said, within three options blocks and the compulsory core.
A fourth block, timetabled this year for a full afternoon, provided for a full range of National Vocational Qualification units at local FE colleges (currently painting and decorating, business administration, hairdressing, joinery and engineeering) as well as a one year IT qualification, a special needs course shared with the local special school, community service and outdoor pursuits. This had grown out of the TRAC project - a privately funded local initiative to give all year 10 pupils a taste of work-based learning. The school had made a big commitment to it. It had been, he said, "an intense management planning process. Now, obviously, much of it is problematic. Transport is expensive, for instance, and we have to send our own teachers with the students - but we are looking at every possibility, including distance learning, to maintain this all-ability introduction to independent learning. "
Three of the schools we spoke to were confident that they had cracked the puzzle. At Ysgol Gyfun, a 900 pupil 11 to 18 comprehensive in Gwynedd, headteacher Huw Roberts had the advantage of playing to slightly different rules. Though Welsh is compulsory in Welsh-speaking schools, the modern foreign language and technology stipulations do not apply. That meant there was room in the school's 30 50-minute timetable for one pair of three period option blocks ("mainly languages and technology") and one pair with a two-period allocation, "one for humanities, one a mixed bag". Huw Roberts conceded that PE and RE, with one period each, were "a little light" (like the other schools in the sample, Ysgol Gyfun seems unmoved by the Prime Minister's recent call for two hours of timetabled sport per week) but the benefit, he claimed, was clear.
At Ercall Wood, an 11 to 16 grant maintained technology college in Telford with 760 pupils on the roll, business sponsors were seen as major players. State of the art technology, deputy head Gill Eatogh conceded, does make a difference. But the most important curriculum planning factor was the way in which the school's curriculum board had set about its task of combining statutory requirements with genuine balance for all abilities.
There had been two crucial decisions, she said: to scrap constrained option blocks in favour of a pattern based on guided pupil choice, and with the help of the local college to make a big investment in this year's GNVQ part one pilots. Business and Health and Social Care were already running; others were in the pipeline. Already, staff were "astounded" at the difference in motivation that GNVQ groups were showing. There was no intention, though, of providing GCSE short courses. There were question marks not just about about syllabuses and accreditation but also about cost. "Pounds 10 for a short course examination, against Pounds 12 for a full GCSE, is much too steep. Besides, we've met the requirements. It's all in place."
Spurley Hey High School, an 800 pupil 11 to 16 school in inner Manchester, was confident too. Mary Powell, headteacher since 1994, had convinced staff and governors that "a pupil-friendly system" was the way to motivate children with traditionally low expectations and often poor attendance. That meant a new structure from this year's year 10. Outside the compulsory 13-hour core, 12 hours was freed to meet pupils' guided choices from a range of 12 full GCSEs (three hours per week) and 13 short courses (one or two hours, depending on pupil choice). There were no option blocks as such: computerised data handling and "a combination of inspired timetabling, a very willing staff, and bravery at the helm that was close at times to folly" met 96 per cent of pupil first choices, and produced the highest turn-out at parents' meetings that teachers could remember.
There are still, Mary Powell cheerfully admits, loose ends. Not all the short courses have firm accreditation, and she is angry that the GCSE syllabus for the promised revaluation of single science has not appeared. She feels a sort of barbed gratitude to Sir Ron Dearing, though. "He gave us the green light, but it's been damned hard to make it work. And the people round him aren't working fast enough."
Hard words perhaps, in the context of the SCAA discussion document. The coming months will show to what extent they are justified.