The 16-19 curriculum was a matter for intense debate long before Dearing's 198 recommendations for reform. This book's claim to be other than an updated replication rests on the authors' intention to "come down from the rarefied air of policy making and system building" to the ways in which teachers and students make sense of "the dynamic and contentious climate" within which their work is embedded.
Intending the "voices" of teachers and students to be heard, the researchers analysed questionnaire responses from 71 schools in six northern LEAs and made more intensive investigations in 20 of them. That evidence is reported within a careful account of recent developments.
While the "creeping modernisation" of A-levels and the rapid emergence of "equal but different" alternatives had to be described, the descriptions (especially of the vocational curriculum) are sometimes so detailed that they crowd out the experiences of those caught up in the changes.
Fuller documentation of those experiences would have reinforced the authors' scepticism about some recent prescriptions for improvement, and supported more strongly their conclusion that practitioners should be given both more scope to develop curricula "responsive to their local contexts" and more of a voice in national debates.
The book begins with a warning against top-down approaches to policy-making, especially when the object of reform is suffused with nostalgia for traditional academic standards. The Dearing review was shackled from the start by government insistence that maintaining the rigour of A-levels was to be a prime consideration, and that the continuation of this peculiar version of advanced "general" education was not to be questioned.
Evidence from this study indicates that mixing of academic and vocational courses is rare, and no private school student in the sample was taking a GNVQ. Students assumed the "inferiority" of that qualification and the inferior ability of those taking it; teachers' advice on which route to follow reflected a realistic appreciation of relative rewards but not that appropriateness for students seeking a more "practical" approach to learning which official promotion of GNVQs has emphasised.
Teachers were predominantly in favour of greater breadth in A-level studies, and students predominantly opposed to making breadth compulsory. Teachers were divided about how far "the experience of A-levels is shifting beneath the surface of the sacrosanct label" because of the introduction of more "applied" subjects and modular syllabuses, and the example of GNVQ.
But while analysis of policy-making produces a sharp contrast between government support for retaining distinct tracks and the wide support for an over-arching qualification, students were generally resistant to radical change and in particular to compulsory breadth.
Contrasts revealed by the evidence include the damaging effects of competition between institutions on the quality of guidance available to 16-year-old potential customers, and the "huge gap" between advocacy of core skills and patchy provision resulting (especially within the "academic" track) from inadequate status, commitment and time.
Tony Edwards is professor of education at the University of Newcastle