In spite of these changes, headteachers and college principals are saying that the Government is not moving fast enough towards a qualifications structure appropriate for the start of the 21st century. A-level courses will be divided into six modules and students will be able to gain an Advanced Subsidiary (AS) grade after three modules.
This stepping stone to A-level will be more useful than the existing Advanced Supplementary (AS), which has had a low take-up throughout its 15-year existence. The old AS contained half the content of an A-level and was at A-level standard. Students rightly considered that, by comparison with A-level courses, two halves made more than a whole.
By contrast, the new AS is the first half of an A-level syllabus and the examinations are set at half the standard of A-level. This opens up post-GCSE advanced study to more students - both young people and adults - and will lead to more sixth formers doing four subjects instead of the usual three.
In her previous announcements on the reform of post-16 qualifications, the Education Minister, Baroness Blackstone, has talked of students doing five subjects within a longer teaching week. She has compared the amount of time spent in lessons by sixth formers and college students in this country with their counterparts on the Continent. On the face of it, it looks as if our students do only half the work of European students, but she is comparing teaching time, which gives a false picture; it is only by referring to learning time that you get a more realistic comparison.
Many people would say that the private study done by our sixth formers is the most valuable part of their course, preparing them well for higher education and further study. Private study time for 16-19-year-olds is a vital component of the low university drop-out rate in this country.
Because of the new AS, some students will be able to gain accreditation in five subjects, but few will take all these examinations simultaneously. There will be many possible patterns of study in the two-year sixth form or college course. Some students will start with three subjects and continue with the same three in the second year - the traditional route. Others will take four subjects, finishing their study of one subject with the AS examination at the end of the first year, and then continuing with their other three subjects through to A-level. If they start a new subject in the second year, studying it to AS level, these students will have three subjects at A-level and two subjects at AS.
Such a tough course will not be taken without careful thought, lest students seek quantity at the expense of quality. For breadth to catch on under the Government's non-compulsory proposals, there will have to be strong signals from the university sector and from employers that breadth is really what they want. An early indication from vice-chancellors is important, but it is the attitudes of several thousand university admissions tutors which will sway the course choices of 16-year-olds.
Students applying for university currently rely on teachers' predictions of A-level grades as a guide to their academic ability. These predictions, made about nine months before A-level examinations, are notoriously unreliable. Under the new system, students will already have their AS grades when they complete their UCAS application and predicted grades will no longer be needed.
It is quite possible that some admissions tutors may regard AS grades as a sufficient indication of ability and offer places to students which are conditional only on the attainment of a bare pass at A-level. This practice has long applied in Scotland, where university places are offered on the basis of results in Highers. However, this is not popular with teachers, because there is a temptation for students to do little work in their final year at school.
The young people who will be affected by the changes in September 2000 are currently in year 10 - a little over a year away from their GCSEs. They should already be thinking about the possibilities opened up by the new system, but schools have understandably been slow to begin their planning. These changes stem from Lord Dearing's Report on post-16 qualifications, which was published back in 1996. First the Conservatives hesitated over implementing Dearing's recommendations, then Labour held another consultation process after the general election. Now, at last, it seems that the changes are going to happen and all A-level syllabuses (now called specifications) are currently being revised into the two-stage AS-A six-module format.
The Advanced General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) is to be offered as a six-module course - the same size as an A-level - and this is likely to result in Advanced GNVQ courses being offered in a greater number of schools. The much-discussed qualifications in key skills are taking rather longer to plan in a satisfactory format and are likely to remain voluntary.
It is good that, at last, the Dearing Report is largely to be implemented, but there is still some way to go before we have a qualifications framework for the 21st century. That will require the government to look at the 14-19 age group as a whole, with the removal of the artificial divisions between pre-16 and post-16 and between academic and vocational courses. Scotland is moving in this direction with its Higher Still reforms; the Welsh Assembly may well look favourably on the proposed Welsh baccalaureate. In England, it seems, these things take rather longer.
The writer is General Secretary of the Secondary Heads Association