Success through flexibility
The Government is determined that the 16-year-old school leaver should be extinct. But curriculum overload and low participation rates remain. In speeches last week, neither Education Secretary Estelle Morris, nor David Hargreaves, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's chief executive, offered much guidance on where we go from here.
Estelle Morris proposed an over-arching award to keep more young people on track post-16. David Hargreaves studiously avoided committing himself on the problems thrown up by the hasty and ill-thought-out introduction of AS-levels.
A graduation-style certificate is an American notion. Other European countries, where a broad sixth-form curriculum is the norm, hold many answers to rescuing the AS-level and to raising post-16 participation.
Most European countries have been adapting to the age of mass participation in upper secondary education for longer than the UK. High participation in advanced courses - more than 80 per cent in some countries - have been coupled with high success rates. Two important adjustments have made this possible.
The first is the introduction, or expansion alongside academic courses, of advanced technical and vocational courses in colleges or workplaces. These have expanded choices and attracted those who learn most successfully in practical study. During the 1980s, as a more heterogeneous student population entered upper secondary education in the UK, the standard fare changed very little. Work-based vocational education was marginalised instead of being integrated into 16 to 19 education elsewhere in Europe.
The second is the recognition that not all will learn at the same pace. Some will need more time and teaching to reach the required standard. It is this flexible pace of learning that allows France to record 60 per cent of an age group gaining a baccalaureate qualification, with failure rates under half those of our A-level candidates.
With around half the age group entering for A-levels, the UK is now catching up with other countries - but without recognising the need for the adjustments those countries have adopted. A recent Department for Education and Skills report shows that, in 1997, almost half of all 18-year-olds failed to achieve the A-levels for which they had entered.
Ignoring this evidence, it was roughly at this point that the Government proposed that 16 to 18-year-olds should cram AS-level examinations and key skills tests into the two-year sixth form, in addition to A-level studies. A crisis was inevitable and foreseeable. International experience shows that, when seeking to resolve these problems, the broadening of the sixth-form curriculum need not be sacrificed.
Students and teachers should not be required to bear the cost of this broadening in intolerable workloads. The broader advanced sixth-form course should be extended over three years, the norm in almost all European countries. Students could complete the course in a shorter or a longer time - taking two or three years to complete. This would make it possible to combine high levels of participation, high success rates and a broad curriculum.
But that is not the whole answer. As important is the re-integration of work-based learning into mainstream upper secondary courses. This could be achieved by providing the underpinning technical study and key skills elements of foundation and advanced modern apprenticeships for students in college, alongside other sixth-form course students.
Participation in college courses while in work-based learning would allow students to acquire the knowledge required for progression to higher education.It would do more to raise the status of work-based education and training than the graduation-style ceremony proposed by the Secretary of State. Allowing students an extra year to complete a more demanding broad academic curriculum would improve success rates. These policies could bring the UK closer to world-class standards.
Hilary Steedman is senior research fellow at the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE