Things can only get better
This time last year, far too many of you did not have the textbooks, workplans or advice you needed for the new AS-level syllabus. As a result, I know that it took much of the first term to adjust to the new exams and it was more difficult than it should have been to give your students the best advice.
It shouldn't have happened like that, not least because it meant such profound structural change for so many of you. Following David Hargreaves' review of the new curriculum, it is my responsibility to sort out the problems that have occurred this year with Curriculum 2000.
Evidence we have suggests that most teachers in schools and colleges support the underlying reason for the new reforms and want to make them work. Most universities are recognising them because they provide potential students with a broader base of subjects, while at the same time ensuring that rigorous standards are maintained.
Extensive consultation revealed there was a pressing need to broaden the sixth-form curriculum on the grounds that the traditional programme of full-time study - for example, two or three A-levels, or an Advanced GNVQ - was inadequate preparation for work and higher education where a broader range of knowledge and skills are increasingly called for. Some of the problems you faced will already have begun to resolve themselves. The texts will be there. You now know what the exam papers are like. You probably also have a better idea of which students should be entered for which exams, and how many AS courses they should do. Last year, 70 per cent of students took four AS-levels.
The big issue we must address is assessment. As a teacher for 18 years, I know that testing and assessment are an important part of the teaching process. But there is evidence that the burden of assessment in Curriculum 2000, particularly for AS and key skills, has been too great. I believe that one way of making an immediate impact is to make sure that students only take the AS examinations before the end of the first year where they have agreed, with their school or college, that this best meets their personal needs. For the majority, end of year examinations will deliver the best outcome.
I have asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to ensure that teachers, schools and colleges have the guidance and support they need to make this happen. Beyond this immediate action it should be possible to make further improvements by reducing the numbers of units in some subjects for those adopting a modular approach. I also want to introduce a single examination paper lasting up to three hours in most subjects as an alternative to the term assessments for those who want it, which will make it much easier to assess AS and A2 together at the end of Year 13 for those that wish to. This approach, which some schools have adopted already, was an option under the system last year, but we did not do enough to make sure you were informed about it.
I have instructed the QCA to take these changes forward as a matter of urgency. I have also asked them, as a priority, to work with the awarding bodies to reduce clashes between exams. I know these are changes where teachers will welcome speedy progress.
With key skills we need to give greater recognition to those students who already hold good GCSEs in English, maths, and ICT or are already taking AS in these subjects, so they are not asked to take separate key skills assessments. Students should be taking key skill components which are relevant to their future study and employment needs and enable them to develop higher skills than they currently possess. We must make the qualification more flexible, less prescriptive and less of a bureaucratic paper chase. And in colleges, key skills should be offered because they are right for students, not because of the funding regime.
So we will ensure that principals who make what they see as the right educational decision aren't penalised. We need to look together at how we can ensure pupils gain these skills, without undue bureaucracy attached to them.
I know there are also concerns about the vocational A-levels. The QCA will address these in more detail in a report in December, looking in particular at the range of subjects on offer and how flexible and manageable are the assessments.
These are practical solutions which, I believe, will have wide support in the classroom. They will be introduced without delay. Every new exam encounters problems in its first year, but pupils and teachers have had to face more than their fair share this time round. I very much regret this, particularly as David Hargreaves' report shows that a number of problems could have been avoided.
With better guidance, reduced assessment and the right improvements to both key skills and vocational exams, I believe these reforms will deliver the right balance of breadth and rigour.
Copies of the QCA report are available at www.qca.org.uk