Schools, colleges and examination boards have to respond to the proposals by the end of this month, but plans are already in place for syllabuses, specimen papers and marking schemes to be ready by the middle of 1997. The crucial decisions, it seems, have already been taken.
There is of course consensus on some issues concerning the 16-19 curriculum. Few would argue with the contention that A-levels are too narrow, that they are inappropriate for many students, and that AS examinations have been a failure. Some, but by no means all, would further suggest that core or key skills should be a part of A-level study and that there is a need to bring vocational and "academic" qualifications closer together. But translating such agreement into a coherent policy is another matter entirely, especially as retaining the A-level "gold standard" is also deemed essential. Responding to such a list of shortcomings and competing objectives is an almost impossible task, which is why the implications of Dearing's recommendations must be thought through before they are accepted.
So what are these proposals? At their core is the introduction of new AS-levels to provide more breadth alongside the existing A-levels; the introduction of key skills, delivered either separately or embedded in subjects; and the return of S-levels.
It is envisaged that the majority of students will embark on a post-16 course comprising four or five AS-levels, of which two or three will be in their chosen areas of specialisation, one or two in another area, and one in key skills.
The attraction of these new AS levels is that they can be studied in one year. They will test some higher level skills but the emphasis will be on lower ones. Clearly, they will require dedicated exam papers, but they must be sat by all students regardless of whether those students intend to continue to A-level. This implies a huge increase in exam entries.
The new AS-levels will supposedly offer a more appropriate set of exams to sit alongside A-levels; in addition, key skills will be assessed, and S-levels revitalised. All this will result in the 16-19 curriculum being considerably widened.
Unfortunately, a number of unintended consequences are likely to damage this ostensibly neat solution. These will fundamentally affect the school year, teaching, student motivation, and costs. Why?
At the end of the first year, students will have to decide which of their AS-levels they wish to continue to A-level. In theory, they can delay taking the AS exam until the end of the second year, but in practice they are unlikely to do so, for a number of reasons. First, they will use the AS as a way of judging their potential for A-level success. Second, they will be aware that their AS results will appear on their UCAS forms. Entering for potentially their weakest subjects makes no sense. Third, delaying the AS exam to the second year carries a potential risk because the first year is discrete and will be examined in a separate paper or papers. It will therefore reflect the work which the student did 12 months earlier. Finally, by sitting at the end of the first year there is the possibility of a re-sit, either in the following January or June, or both if necessary.
This all adds up to a massive increase in examination entries, which will have a knock-on effect throughout 16-19 education.
What is being proposed is an entirely new tranche of examinations. It will require chief examiners to mark papers, computers to process the results, and so on. All this, remember, will be for four, five or six subjects per candidate. This implies a massive increase in costs. The question is, who pays: parents, colleges, or the boards?
With exam entry fees already representing a huge proportion of school and college budgets, there is strong resistance to increasing expenditure in that area. Yet the exam boards will have to pass on the extra costs somehow.
New courses will also require new resources. Publishers are currently researching alternative ways of providing text books, separate texts for AS and A-level, overlapping texts for both, and so on, but one thing is certain: the present ones will be rendered obsolete by the changes. Where will the money come from to finance the re-equipping of every sixth-form student in the country?
In practice the final term's teaching is currently lost from a two-year A-level course because of examinations. Under the new proposals it is inevitable that the summer term at the end of the first year will also disappear. This means that the new AS becomes a two-term course in the same way that the current A-level is effectively completed in five terms. But the A-level will now be reduced to four terms. Given the necessity to cover key skills as well, A-levels could never be the same.
During both years, teaching time will have to be set aside to allow for mock examinations and re-sits in January. If key skills are integrated within individual subjects, even more teaching time for the subject content will disappear. How will this time be made up? More contact time, more teachers? Hardly likely, since that would add still more to the cost. The alternative is for quality to suffer.
From a school's point of view there is also the time and expertise involved in administering these exams. Planning and executing an AS entry will be just as difficult and time-consuming as the current A-levels, except that there will be more than double the number. Is this really the way we want our colleges to occupy the time of highly qualified teachers and lecturers - sitting in rooms and halls invigilating examinations, with senior staff administrating them?
In fairness, SCAA has done its best to consult, but because of time constraints this has not been wide enough; questions of principle and practicality have not been discussed. This was most vividly revealed when the mathematics and science group was asked to rewrite the maths core in just a few days.
These changes are too important to rush. Until the questions raised in this article can be satisfactorily answered we must simply stop and reflect.
16-19: THE NIGHTMARE SCENARIO
It will start in a rush; it will have to because time is precious. Some colleges will come back in late August for this reason. Most of the coursework will be completed during the autumn term, because there will be little space elsewhere. Then, after about one-and-a-half terms of teaching, eight months after taking nine or ten GCSEs, students will sit trial AS-levels.
Teachers will have to prepare two trial examinations, because the AS and A-level papers will be testing entirely different skills. These papers will have to be marked, analysed and returned. In addition, it may also be necessary to consult with other colleagues over recording and validating embedded key skills.
The entire college will be involved in examinations in the spring term. The AS and A-level students will be sitting their trial exams, which will take two or three weeks, but there will also be a cohort of re-sits, GNVQ students doing external tests, and others following modular courses. There will be the usual upsets over rooms, invigilation and half-empty classes.
All this leaves perhaps half a term in the spring for more teaching, which will probably have to start to emphasise revision because most of the summer term will consist of examinations proper.
In the summer term institutions may squeeze in a week or two of teaching, but having to ensure the physical space and staff available to invigilate GCSEs, the new bigger GNVQ tests, AS, A-levels and S-levels, will require more time than at present. Exam boards will support a lengthening of the exam period because of the vast increase in administration with which they are burdened.
The diagnostic value of end-of-first-year exams will be lost as scripts return to the exam boards, never to be seen again. Teachers will have to speculate on their students' strengths and weaknesses rather than being able, as at present, to sit down with them and analyse their performance in a personal and supportive manner. Students will delay deciding on their A-levels until after the AS results.
Come August, the envelopes will once again start fluttering through letter boxes, just as they did 12 months earlier; it's time for the year to start again.
David Lines is lecturer in business economics and a member of the international centre for research on assessment at the University of London's Institute of Education