News Analysis: Is there educational life after GCSEs and A-levels?

The latest proposals for secondary schooling are being described as 'revolutionary', but the baccalaureate is still some way off
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The Independent Online

CHILDREN CAN leave school (for at least two days a week) at 14, but they should stay in full-time education or training until they are 19. That, in essence, was the message behind yesterday's proposals for an overhaul of the curriculum for those aged 14 to 19.

Children can leave school (for at least two days a week) at 14, but they should stay in full-time education or training until they are 19. That, in essence, was the message behind yesterday's proposals for an overhaul of the curriculum for those aged 14 to 19.

David Miliband, the School Standards minister, called the package the "most significant" reforms to the timetable since the 1944 Education Act introduced compulsory secondary schooling for all until 14.

A key phrase to sum up the reforms, outlined in a document, 14 to 19: Opportunity and Excellence, from the Department for Education and Skills, says: "At the beginning of the 21st century, we can no longer tolerate an artificial divide between the world of education and the world of work." Hence the introduction of compulsory lessons in work-related learning for all children from 14.

For some, this will include up to two days a week at college or on work experience learning a trade. For others, it could be lessons in "enterprise capability", preparing them for life after school.

The reforms, with an expan-sion in the number of vocational GCSEs (at present there are eight, in subjects as diverse as engineering, health care and leisure and tourism), are designed to woo bored pupils back to learning.

The document says: "Some young people have already disengaged from learning before the age of 16. They are bored by their GCSE studies and feel trapped in school when they would prefer to be working and living a more adult life."

The most controversial aspect of the 14 to 16 package is the decision to allow youngsters to drop modern foreign languages for work-related learning. Language teachers say that will send a signal to children that it is a second-class subject. But ministers say by introducing this in the primary school curriculum (all seven-year-olds will be able to learn a language by 2010) they will create more enthusiasm for language learning.

To some extent, the 14 to 16 proposals, which will come into force from September 2004, pave the way for an even more radical shake-up of the curriculum after 16.

Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector who headed the inquiry into last year's fiasco over A-level grades, will lead a task force to look at whether the introduction of an English-style baccalaureate could be the way forward to provide students with a broader range of studies than the traditional three A-levels.

He will also decide whether to scrap GCSEs and A-levels to make way for the baccalaureate. Ministers said any shake-up would be unlikely until the end of the decade. But the document says: "Baccalaureate-style qualifications work well in other countries and we believe that this model – designed to suit English circumstances – could tackle long-standing English problems.

"A change to this type of model would be a long-term reform but one on which we are ready to embark if further work shows such a unified system can prepare people for the varied needs of higher education and employment."

Yesterday, Mr Tomlinson said he had an "open mind"on whether a baccalaureate system would be introduced and whether it would incorporate the existing A and AS-level system (with AS-levels providing the breadth of study to make it more akin to the baccalaureate system in other European countries) or whether they would be scrapped to make way for a new qualification. Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, said: "We are ready to contemplate anything Mike Tomlinson recommends."

Ministers said changes would not have any impact on pupils now approaching GCSEs or A-levels, and that their top priority over the next six months was to avoid a repeat of the grading fiasco.

In the interim, Mr Tomlinson will have to grapple with the suggestion he made in his final inquiry report, that A-levels and AS-levels should be uncoupled and sat as two separate qualifications, in effect allowing the brightest children to bypass AS-levels and follow a more traditional pattern of A-level study with a qualification and exam after two years of study.

Some educationists believe this could be a change too far, especially if, within a short time, the system was to undergo another upheaval to bring in the English baccalaureate. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The Government must learn the lessons of the recent past. Proper consultation with teachers, sufficient funding and training, proper piloting and development time must be in place before a new qualification is introduced." He added: "There is a danger in promoting a division between acad-emic and vocational education. It is vital that we remove the second-class stigma from vocational courses." The answer to this dilemma, ministers say, is to remove the labels "vocational" and "academic" from different GCSE qualifications.

Mr Miliband told a conference organised by the National Association of Head Teachers, the Secondary Heads Association and the Association of Colleges to promote the proposals: "I have never understood vocational to mean second class. Medicine is not second class, law isn't second class, music isn't second class, engineering isn't second class: but in England we have allowed vocational studies to have second-class status.

"This has to change. We need to develop confidence in our society that vocational learning can and does lead to good, skilled and well-paid jobs. Part of that is the label. 'Academic' and 'vocational' do not do justice to courses being studied."

Apart from the caveat from the NUT, the proposals won approval from a wide spectrum yesterday, uniting (possibly for the first time) voices as diverse as Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, and the hawkish Ruth Lea from the Institute of Directors. The Confederation of British Industry said ministers ought to concentrate more on teaching secondary-school pupils basic reading, writing and arithmetic.

Lesson One: How the GCSE curriculum is changing


Kenneth Baker launched the national curriculum in 1988 with 10 key subjects at its core.
Compulsory: English, maths, science, history, geography, modern foreign language, design and technology, music and art, physical education and religious education.
Optional: PSHE (personal, social and health education), Latin and Greek
Advantage: First time that pupils were guaranteed teaching in a wide range of subjects.
Disadvantage: Teachers said there was too little time to teach anything other than the compulsory subjects.


Under David Blunkett, the curriculum became "softer".
Compulsory: English, maths, science, a modern foreign language and information technology as core subjects. RE,PE and citizenship also included on the timetable.
Optional: History, geography, music and art. Schools may "disapply" some youngsters from the curriculum to study work-related subjects.
Advantage: More flexibility for teachers and pupils.
Disadvantage: Too many students switching off lessons and playing truant.


The plan unveiled by David Miliband yesterday is due to come into effect in September 2004.
Compulsory: Maths, English and science (applied science relevant to today's world). Students must spend time on "work-related learning", RE, sex education, citizenship, careers and PE.
Optional: History, geography, modern foreign language, music, art. IT will be incorporated into other subjects.
Advantage: More flexibility to tailor courses to students' interests.
Disadvantage: Scrapping of compulsory modern foreign language may make it a second-class subject.


Leisure and tourism is one of the vocational GCSEs likely to become more popular under the new system. The others are health and social care and engineering.

Leisure and tourism students are assessed on exercises such as acting the part of an airline check-in desk attendant dealing with a difficult customer, or writing an essay on a local theme park, analysing its customers and advertising.

The GCSE is a double award, equivalent to two GCSE passes because of the sheer volume of the work expected. Students are assessed on three units rather than an end-of-term examination.


For practical exercises, students might be asked to compile a healthcare plan for an elderly relative. Another exercise suggests they devise a training programme for a relative who may be about to tackle a sporting event, such as the London Marathon.

Students can specialise in three different areas, health care, social care or looking after the early years (training for working in nurseries or daycare centres for toddlers).


In engineering (also a double award worth two GCSEs), students are called upon to design an engineering product. There is also a written exam paper, which tests students' knowledge of the use of information technology in the development of engineering products. Students will also be given experience of working in an engineering environment.