Clever children could skip GCSE for AS-level

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The Independent Online

Clever pupils may be allowed to skip GCSEs and go straight on to AS-level courses under proposals to reform secondary schools.

Likewise, less able pupils who struggled to reach GCSE standard might be able to take their exams later, Stephen Timms, the Minister for Schools, told MPs yesterday.

Appearing before the all-party education select committee, Mr Timms said the proposal would form part of a package of secondary school reforms to be announced in the New Year. However, he warned that the review of education for pupils aged 14 to 19 could take a decade to complete.

Mr Timms said the proposals would allow bright pupils entered for a large number of GCSEs to take more demanding courses. "There will be opportunities for youngsters to do things faster than has been the case. There may well be youngsters who at the moment are doing a large number of GCSEs, who instead of doing such a large number can move in some areas straight on to AS-level," he said.

In its White Paper published in September, the Government said it wanted more students to take GCSEs early. Under the new proposals, pupils as young as 14 will be able to move on to take exams designed for pupils four years older.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, welcomed the proposals but called for an overhaul of league tables, to give credit to students of all ages. He said: "It is entirely sensible that we should have a big external exam at the point at which pupils leave education. GCSEs will not be abolished, but will become a different kind of qualification."

However Nigel de Gruchy, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, warned that the proposal could lead to "a devaluation of the GCSE".

He said: "Teachers' jobs would also be made more difficult by a two-tier approach to the GCSE examinations."

Mr Timms also revealed yesterday that the Government would phase out its flagship programme of creating education "action zones" in deprived inner city areas. He told a conference of representatives of the zones that their contracts would not be renewed. Most expire in 2005 but the contracts of the first 25 pioneers of the project run out in 2003.

Mr Timms said the zones would be merged with the Government's "excellence in the cities" programme – a scheme that gives schools extra cash to stretch the brightest pupils and "fast-track" them through GCSEs and national curriculum tests. The 73 zones, which cover about 2,000 state schools, were launched with a fanfare of publicity soon after Labour came to power in 1997.

The scheme was billed as the first attempt to bring in big businesses to shake up schools. Schools were to be given the right to rewrite teachers' contracts, offering them higher pay in exchange for more flexible hours, which could include working during the holidays to help struggling pupils.

However, teachers' leaders claimed the scheme had failed in its attempt to "privatise" the education system, even though it had helped teachers to be more "innovative".

Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "[The zones] were originally an attempt by the Government to privatise education by stealth. That's not happened. Interest in commercial involvement has not been forthcoming.

But he added: "The zones have provided an opportunity for teachers to be more innovative and for there to be more co-operation and exchange of ideas between schools."