The abolishing of GCSEs, raising of the school leaving age to 18 and the introduction of an over-arching qualification at 18 called the Advanced Diploma, all seem surprisingly radical from a body that stands out as a bastion of conservatism. It is the first time that the Headmaster's Conference, which represents the country's major independent schools, has approached the Government with an agreed statement on curriculum matters.
Ever since the Higginson proposals during Mrs Thatcher's government for revision of A-levels to a five-subject qualification, HMC members have been deeply divided between those who favoured breadth and those who favoured depth. In many ways HMC has chosen a curious moment to air its new-found consensus.
In a new spirit of rapprochement to teachers Mrs Shephard has declared a moratorium on major change for five years, so one wonders how this herald of a new age of stability will react to such a document.
In reality, HMC's intervention at this stage is understandable, for without any new initiative or effort on the Government's part, the post-16 landscape will change substantially during the coming years.
Staying on post-GCSE has already become the norm, and the introduction of General National Vocational Qualifications, whose level 3 is described as A-level equivalent, has proved spectacularly popular. In the face of such rapid development, HMC felt it should make its voice heard.
It has never liked GCSE - discerning the gap between GCSE and A-level to be too great. There is also a fear among its members that the increase in staying-on rates and the concomitant increase in numbers taking A-level will stretch that elite qualification to a purpose for which it was never intended. In short they fear a lowering of the gold standard.
As an increasing number of independent schools are now introducing GNVQs there is also a desire that common ground of assessment and examination between the vocational and the academic should be established.
HMC proposes a 14-19 'continuum', whereby pupils, having demonstrated they have reached minimum national levels 'in such skills as written and oral communication, numeracy, science and modern foreign language' should, from the age of 14 (known as key stage 3) be allowed a 'gradual and considered' reduction in the number of subjects studied over the next three to five years.
The document now in Mrs Shephard's hands, called 'Education 14-19', states that some pupils will keep up to six subjects in the final stages while others will specialise in as few as three or four.
It proposes that within the Advanced Diploma some pupils will choose the vocational pathway and others the academic. It sets out a modular structure to qualifications and a system of tariffs attached to each course. Each course and component would be given a numerical value which would be aggregated to give a total for the award of the final qualification.
A-levels, in essence if not in name, would be retained in traditional or modular form, but fewer students would be entered for this pathway. The ablest students would be offered 'extension modules' - or S-level papers.
Last year independent schools gained over 50 per cent of A-level A-C grades and were therefore over-represented among the top awards. Why wish to change a system which has worked so well for them?
Proposals for modularisation, within which the A-level 'may be expendable', must place the future of the traditional A-level in some jeopardy. There are heads within HMC who fear such a consequence.
David Summerscale, the headmaster of Westminster School has already vented his spleen over these proposals in published articles. It would be a mistake to do anything, he has stated, which would weaken the position of A-levels.
At HMC grassroots there is certainly a greater degree of caution and some scepticism. Father Leo Chamberlain, headmaster of Ampleforth College, said the document had been passed at HMC's annual conference on a show of hands.
He said: 'Broadly speaking the tone of the meeting was welcoming, but were HMC a deliberative body with powers to command its members, it would be a very unsatisfactory process. There had been earlier consultation, but the document itself was only made available the previous night.'
Although he believed the intention was there to maintain 'and reinforce' the distinctive qualities of A-level he felt that the document 'perhaps lacks sufficient safeguards'.
'This is taking a very considerable step away from A-level towards the French baccalaureat or the German Abitur,' he said.
Moreover, it failed to make 'specific defence of the tradition of humane and liberal education and the intellectual, theological and philosophical foundation on which such a tradition is based'.
'If this is not stated,' he said, 'then people will think it does not matter'.
He also believed that achieving parity of esteem for different pathways 'may not be workable'.
In some ways, by reducing the numbers of students who would take A-level as part of the Advanced Diploma, HMC could be seen to have placed the interests of its members uppermost. Most of its heads have no intention of deviating from A-level, knowing their parental constituency would, for the most part, brook no alternative.
Mr Keith Dawson, headmaster of the Haberdashers' Aske's School and a member of the 14-19 education working party said: 'The danger at the moment is that A-level is being emasculated to suit all needs. A-levels cannot become the main route post-16 into higher education. They cannot be used comprehensively.'
However, by addressing the whole notion of pathways, by embracing the vocational and welcoming the introduction of GNVQs, HMC is reinforcing its claim to be part of the mainstream.
With greater fluidity between independent and state school, HMC cannot afford to be out on a limb and needs to maintain a dialogue with the Secondary Heads Association in particular.
It also accepts that there is a significant minority of pupils within independent schools themselves who would benefit from the choice of alternatives to A-level. Mr Robin Reeve, headmaster of King's College School, Wimbledon said: 'We are interested in retaining programmes for able students, but not at the expense of those who will not benefit.'
Alan Smithers, professor at the Centre for Education and Employment Research, Manchester University, a key critic of the way Government has introduced and implemented GNVQs, carries out research on behalf of HMC. In this instance he believes independent school heads are muddying the waters.
Present problems, he said, lay not with the general framework of the current post-16 provision, 'but with the details of the implementation'. He believes, not that there should be parity of esteem between different pathways, but parity of rigour and clarity.
He stated: 'I share HMC's aspiration that our education system should provide a structured progression from a broad and largely common curriculum to something more differentiated, but I doubt that what they propose will achieve it.
'I am surprised by it and I think it will undermine their own position. It is better to make sure A-levels work on their own terms and then to get applied education to work on its own terms.'
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