Why it's a bad time to be 16, going on 17

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
People have been trying to reform the English sixth-form curriculum for more than 30 years. There were Qs and Fs, and Ns and Fs, and Is, and now AS levels. I imagine weary civil servants pulling a dusty file down from a shelf, at roughly five-yearly intervals. They recommend the same plans as last time, and merely change the letters. The Government puts them in a green paper, everybody says they won't work, then the Government withdraws.

But this time, by some mischance (I always thought that no good would come of new Labour's obsession with "delivery"), the new curriculum actually got implemented. Now, it is exposed as a farce and there must be an inquiry. Any fool could have told them it wouldn't work.

There are only two sensible alternatives to A-levels. The first is the North American system, which broadly accepts that the function of education is to keep youngsters off the streets until their late teens and that, if they happen to learn anything meantime, this is a welcome bonus. American schools, for the most part, do not have external exams; they grade pupils internally and somewhat haphazardly. For university entrance, they set a glorified intelligence test, the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The Americans like to think of the SAT as an instrument of meritocracy, immune to privilege, whether of colour, class or social background. This is not really true, but all societies need their myths.

The second alternative is the Continental baccalaureate system, which involves students taking five or six subjects, including both arts and sciences. In effect, they have to pass them all at a reasonable level in order to enter university. The main objection to this solution is that it is foreign and, therefore, I cannot see any politician being brave enough to embrace it.

So I fear that, just as the Russians are stuc forever with tyrants, the Americans with guns and the French with impenetrable philosophers, we English are doomed to be stuck with A-levels. This is for two reasons. First, A-levels represent the last ditch for those who believe that standards have been declining for half-a-century. Second, the English system mainly in the sciences, but to some extent also in humanities and languages - depends on students arriving at university having covered what would be left until the first degree year in other countries. Any dilution of A-levels leads inexorably to four-year degree courses, and a huge increase in the cost of university education.

New Labour, with its stern, Stakhanovite approach, hit upon a solution of beautiful simplicity: keep A-levels as they are; just add more exams, more subjects and more work. And while we are about it, ministers thought, let us add "basic skills" tests to satisfy those pesky employers and university tutors who are always complaining that even school-leavers with A-levels, can't read, write or add up.

It ought not to have taken a genius to work out that the result would be the loss of a whole term's teaching, as students revised for and took extra exams. Nor did it need a genius to forecast that the Duke of Edinburgh awards scheme, the school orchestra and the lacrosse league would suffer grievously.

The AS-level farce is a marvellous case study in how we run our education system. The pressure for new exams and new subjects is and always will be intense. We all have bees in our bonnets about what children should to be taught: Latin, civics, statistics, and so on. (I favour law, so that we can all stop paying lawyers so much money.) Whatever the demands, it's easy to give in to them; the hard part is to cut something else.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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