Last month the government published Qualifying for Success, a consultation document on post-16 qualifications. What happens next may come to be seen as one of the defining moments of its term in office.
This latest document is the follow-up to Sir Ron Dearing's report on post-16 qualifications, published a little over a year before the election. This led to frantic activity, with new A-Level subject cores and syllabuses being rushed out, and there was widespread concern that not enough time had been allowed for the job to be done properly. This work is now on hold, pending consultation.
Much more, however, is at stake than tidying up a set of syllabuses. Qualifying for Success reveals a frightening lack of forethought. The Government, it seems, wants to go ahead with the new syllabuses in 1999 (has a year sitting on the shelf made them better?), and then introduce an over-arching "national certificate" in about 2002. The problem is that these two developments are mutually incompatible, so schools and colleges will be faced with the expense and upheaval of two changes in just three years.
There is a strong case for moving to the broader curriculum that would accompany a national certificate. Take Claire, a 16-year-old with good GCSEs. She wants to be a scientist, but is too young and inexperienced to be more specific than that. However, like most students, she has to choose just three subjects to study in the sixth form. The system says to her: "You have to give up one out of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. Which will it be?" Whichever Claire decides to drop will be the wrong choice, because all four are important at that stage of the education of a young scientist.
The damage done by the three-A-Level regime is so obvious in science that it is hard to understand how it has been allowed to continue for so long; much the same is true of engineering. We are running a system that condemns many of our brightest young people to an inadequate grounding in their chosen subjects.
Where else in the world are students required to follow such a narrow curriculum? In this country there have been persistent, and consistent, calls for a wider school curriculum from virtually all stakeholders (universities, industry, learned societies, schools, and so on). The response of the previous government was always to hide behind the slogan that "A-Level is the gold standard".
So what would a new curriculum look like? What would Claire study?
As well as the four subjects already mentioned, she might also need some technology; geography or geology; economics or business studies; and a foreign language. Other subjects might be added on aesthetic grounds.
But wouldn't Claire be overloaded? That depends on how much time she gave to each subject. The key to making such a curriculum work is a modular structure that allows students to study different amounts in different subjects. Claire might take a single module in technical and scientific French, but perhaps six modules (the equivalent of a full A-Level) in chemistry. Most subjects are now available in modular form, but - and here is the rub - you need to take three for an AS qualification before getting any external recognition.
We need a national certificate that gives recognition to single modules in some areas, but requires a substantial number in a student's main subjects. As things stand, this simply is not possible.
Such a change would have far-reaching consequences, both for universities and for pre-16 education. Many good university courses last four years, and this practice would probably become more widespread. There might well be an extension of the present practice whereby some universities employ colleges of further education to undertake some of their early teaching.
The time scale for planning and implementing such a programme will inevitably span the next general election and probably the tenures of several government ministers. It will survive only if there is a consensus that it is right, not just in principle but also in detail. That will take time; 2002 seems optimistic.
We can, however, start by getting suitable modules into place, for these will be the building blocks of a new curriculum. Since they can also be used with A-Levels, they can be introduced as soon as they are ready; indeed some (but not all) of those already in use are suitable. The set of modules covering any subject must include some that are worthwhile in their own right, and they should foster life skills such as communication and teamworking.
The national certificate should also cover courses which we currently term vocational, such as GNVQs and NVQs. Some modules will thus be taken by a greater variety of students than at present, and this too will influence their design. In mathematics there are already modules running that are common to A-Level and GNVQ.
This all adds up to a different agenda from that which underpins the range of planned syllabuses, and accepting it would be tantamount either to opting for a further round of change, or giving up on the idea of a national certificate. The consultation document is frustrating because it says nothing of this.
We have a government with a large majority, and senior people within it who understand the need for such change. It may well be another generation before such an opportunity comes again.
The consultation provides us with the opportunity to ask them for radical reform. So radical that it brings us into line with the rest of the world.