Curriculum 2000 is under fire but Labour must think carefully before hastily altering its agenda, Cherry Canovan reports.
Changes in the post-16 curriculum were intended to produce students with a broad base of knowledge, not to mention communication and numeracy skills to beat those of our European Union rivals. Instead, they produced overworked pupils, fuming teachers and an almighty headache for universities.
But despite widespread criticism of Curriculum 2000, which introduced AS levels to be sat in the lower sixth, the university sector saw some benefits in the system.
Universities that choose their students on exam performance felt that AS-level results would provide valuable pointers to performance in the upper sixth and transform the art of making offers into an exact science. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service said AS levels should be better predictors of A-level performance than GCSEs. And institutions keen to widen participation were also welcoming. Trevor Watkins, deputy vice-chancellor of South Bank University, said: "We think a broad-based curriculum is generally helpful, particularly to our type of provision."
Many universities would prefer to see the system in action before alterations are made. But it seems they are out of luck. Education secretary Estelle Morris has responded to the public outcry over student and teacher workloads by apologising for the "extra stresses" that the new system has caused. She has announced several changes.
Universities have, in the main, said they welcome students with four AS levels as evidence of a broad educational base. But few are insisting on it. City University is, perhaps, typical when it says in its entry requirements: "We would hope that candidates would take four AS levels in year 12, converting three of them to A-levels in year 13... We do understand the differences in resources in schools and will endeavour not to disadvantage applicants who have been unable to take four."
Others take a firmer line. The University of Warwick's admissions policy says: "Warwick welcomes a broader curriculum for students aged 16-19, and will therefore require a minimum of 21 units of study. Schools or colleges which cannot offer 21 units are requested to state this on each student's Ucas application. The University is keen to ensure that such students are not disadvantaged and their applications will be considered alongside those of other students. Selectors may, however, require slightly higher grades where the volume of study is 18 rather than 21 units."
Warwick said it was taking this approach to help make the new system work.
Spokesman Peter Dunn said: "The idea was that students had more variety in what they did, and we have tried to reflect that. But this does not exclude people doing 18 units - they would have to just achieve much the same as under the old A-level system."
Although many universities have made an effort to embrace the new qualifications, they have met with criticism for not being positive enough.
In a report on phase one of its review of Curriculum 2000, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority says: "There has been a very varied response to Curriculum 2000 from higher education institutions and their influence upon it has, despite words of support at a formal level, often in practice been damaging to some aspects of the reforms."
John Wright, student recruitment manager at the University of Surrey and national development officer of the Higher Education Liaison Officers Association, is in favour of the system as it stands. He said that until the first students enter university under the system in 2002, nobody will know anything for sure.
"Generally, we would feel that we have been waiting and preparing for this system for so long that it would be a great shame to jeopardise the first year of presentation," he said.
"Systems have to settle down... Nearly all universities will be very reluctant to make another set of changes for 2003 entry.
"Mercifully, it looks as though Estelle Morris is just proposing minor changes to the new system rather than major revision."
Other commentators, however, do not see the proposed changes as minor, with one national newspaper saying the government had "effectively abandoned most of its A-level reforms".
A crucial point is that while schools have always been given the choice of whether or not pupils should sit the exams in "linear" or "modular" paths - the latter meaning they get AS-level results at the end of the lower sixth - the government has encouraged the modular route, and most schools have gone along with this.
But the emphasis appears to have changed. In her statement, Ms Morris said:
"For the majority of students, AS levels are best taken at the end of the summer term either at the end of the first year of study or together with the examinations they take at the end of the second year of their A-level course."
Some believe that in practice, this will mean a reversion to students in effect taking three A levels in the upper sixth, with one AS level in addition.
If it pans out this way, will it throw into disarray universities' plans to make use of AS-level results?
Mr Wright is upbeat. He said: "It was always likely that there would be those schools opting for linear assessment at the end of year 13 and those opting for modular assessment at the end of year 12. I do not see the current discussions changing this much."
At South Bank University, Professor Watkins is resigned to the prospect of yet more change. "We are used to taking things in our stride, given the amount of change that is taking place," he said.
And at Warwick, Mr Dunn said that having AS-level results as a predictor was "a nice bonus" but that the university could cope if it did not materialise. "We would have to rely on what we did before," he said.
Another area of change announced by Ms Morris is that fewer pupils will undertake the key skills programme - one part of Curriculum 2000 that has not met with a warm response in universities.
The QCA's review of Curriculum 2000 notes that many students have not embraced key skills - communication, application of number and information technology - partly because of "the indifference to the qualifications shown by admissions tutors in universities".
One frustrated schools liaison officer said that the key skills agenda had caused chaos. He described the situation as "a bloody mess".
Universities, he said, were "having some difficulty getting their heads round" how much emphasis they should be placing on key skills, which not all applicants would be offering.
"If you build key skills firmly into your offer-making, what happens about those who have not had the opportunity to sit the tests, because their school doesn't offer it?" he said. "It is an issue of equality, and it's a big headache."
Mr Wright is more moderate in his views, but is still not particularly enthusiastic. "As universities, we have valued key skills and always been very keen to see evidence of key skills, but not necessarily three very narrow ones which have numbers attached to them."
Higher education institutions tend to be more interested in the skills of working with others, improving one's own learning and problem-solving than in those that are certificated. They also like to see evidence of transferable skills from extra-curricular activities such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. The narrowing of the key skills programme does not seem likely, therefore, to bother universities too much.
But their first hurdle is to get over results day next month. Mr Wright said: "Clearing this year is going to be a real madhouse. Students armed with their AS results are going to want advice on which subjects to drop."
AS Levels: a short history
The days when every 16 to 18-year-old wanting to go to university sat three A levels in the upper sixth are long gone.
Serious efforts to broaden post-16 subject choice were made in the late 1980s when the original Advanced Supplementary, or AS levels, were introduced. These were two-year courses at full A-level standard, but covering half the syllabus and designed to be studied in half the time.
"Old" AS levels failed to make much of an impact, and in September 2000 a new qualifications was introduced, the Advanced Subsidiary. An A level is now counted as six units and a new AS as three, so a typical student studying four AS levels in the lower sixth and taking three forward to full A level would clock up 21 units of study.
The new qualifications can be studied in "linear" or "modular" form, with linear A levels assessed by exams after two years. Modular exams, which the government had encouraged, divide study into discrete units that are assessed throughout the course, with AS-level results at the end of the lower sixth. However, the emphasis may be shifting - Estelle Morris recently said that exams were best taken at the end of the academic year rather than during it.
The government is also developing Advanced Extension Awards, which are based on the old S level and will be introduced in summer 2002.
The change has also meant changes to the "points" system introduced in the 1960s and used by Ucas to sum up students' A-level achievements. For many years the scores ran from five points for a grade A to one for an E. Under this system, BBC at A level totalled 11 points.
Once "old" AS levels were introduced at the end of the 1980s, points for A levels were doubled, running from ten down to two, while AS levels got five down to one points. BBC counted as 22 points.
Now the new system aims to "establish agreed equivalences" between qualifications including key skills, A levels, new AS levels, vocational A levels and Scottish qualifications. Under the new tariff, BBC at A level totals 280 points.