The countdown to the launch of Curriculum 2000 is almost complete, but is Britain's education system really geared up for the changes it will bring?
It was only a few months ago that schools and universities accused one another of playing "cat and mouse" with the issue of admissions criteria for the revised sixth-form syllabus. Secondary school leaders criticised higher education for its tardy or, in some cases, lack of response to the new qualifications. Universities claimed they had been "kept in the dark" by schools, who were unsure of what their provisions would be.
But the second-guessing is over, according to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. "Everything is in place and the feedback from schools so far has been promising," a QCA spokesperson said. "They seem to know what they are doing."
A survey by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service of almost 2,000 schools confirms that 80 per cent of schools plan to offer students four subjects at Advanced Subsidiary level, although this is one subject less than the government's original recommendations.
Comprising the first three modules of an A level, the one-year AS level can be converted to a fully fledged A level after a further year of study. Students can choose to drop or take on subjects, removing the necessity of specialising at an early age.
Exams will be set at half the standard of a full A levels and the reforms aim to "address the undue narrowness and lack of flexibility in the post-16 curriculum", according to the QCA.
The sector as a whole has responded positively to the concept of greater breadth, despite early fears that more select universities would continue to look for AAB candidates, rather than translating traditional offers into key skills and vocational AS levels.
But Laura Kishore, senior assistant registrar at Reading University, said that although universities could not ignore the changes, some areas would still benefit from better clarification. "Almost every sixth-former in England is going to be offering AS levels as part of their entry qualifications, so we really don't have any choice. Although we are very happy with the aims of Curriculum 2000, we want to look more closely at key skills and how we should build them into our requirements.
"Initial indications from schools were that they were concentrating on the new A levels rather than key skills so we thought it would be a minority area and did not focus on it either. It is clearer now that this is not going to be the case," said Ms Kishore.
Maggie Scott, a quality adviser at the Association of Colleges, agreed that key skills have caused some anxiety.
"We don't think universities have realised the potential of these extra skills or how they will be used in the selection process. We can see they will be of great benefit, but we don't know what universities are expecting," she said.
Perhaps the system's greatest taboo is the introduction of an advanced extension test - part of a raft of "world-class tests" designed to stretch the minds of the most able students.
Despite government assurances that the tests will not require additional teaching and resources, some inner-city schools and further education colleges have condemned the proposals as discriminatory and nothing more than the back-door reintroduction of the Oxbridge entrance exams.
Although details of the test are still patchy, the Ucas schools survey found that 24 per cent of independent schools are interested in using the test, compared with 9.3 per cent of comprehensive schools, indicating that take-up will be firmly linked to institutional affluence.
If the reforms are successful, students can look forward to a curriculum that will "treat them as individuals", according to Ms Scott, who added:
"The crunch comes in September when we will see what the students elect to do. That is when we find out if we are really prepared or not."
A AND AS LEVELS. Advanced subsidiary (AS) levels are qualifications in their own right, as well as thefirst half of the new six-part A level.
Students can choose four or five AS levels in the first year of their sixth form and then narrow this down to three advanced (A2) subjects in their second year.
It is widely hoped that students will opt for subjects they would not consider otherwise. The A2 year will be more academically demanding than the AS and students will be assessed accordingly.
ADVANCED EXTENSION AWARDS. Universities will be able to use the World Class Tests to differentiate between A-level students on courses where large proportions of candidates already receive A grades, as the tests are designed to stretch more able candidates.
They will be benchmarked against standards that have been set for able students overseas and are to be externally assessed.
Trials begin this year, and the AEAs initially will be available in 14 traditional subject areas by 2002.
KEY SKILLS. Although key skillsare not yet mandatory, the government is encouraging all post-16 providers to incorporate them into their programmes.
Key skill areas include communication, working with others, application of numbers, problem-solving and information technology.
There are five levels, with 2 and 3 most relevant to university entry.