Sixth-form reforms fan fears

October 29, 1999

MIKE BENSON Universities fear plans to reform the sixth-form curriculum may damage quality and leave prospective students with little time for essential extracurricular activities.

A consultation by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, to be revealed at a conference next week, gives only a cautious and qualified welcome for government plans to widen sixth-form study and test key skills.

Under the reforms, to be introduced in September 2000, students will be encouraged to sit up to five AS-level qualifications, equivalent to half an A level, in the first year of sixth form. They will be further encouraged to cross the perceived divide between vocational and academic study.

A new key skills exam will test basic numeracy and literacy, and an Advanced Extension Award will stretch the most able students.

In an address to the CVCP conference, "The New Post-16 Qualifications And Their Impact On Higher Education", London Guildhall University provost Roderick Floud is expected to offer a warm welcome to the "broad thrust" of the reforms.

Universities expect the reforms to promote greater interdisciplinary balance across the arts and sciences and "a more informed choice of HE study", he will say.

But the consultation has uncovered concerns. "Some replies perceived a danger that greater breadth might be achieved at the expense of depth in certain subjects," Professor Floud will warn.

"There is particular concern about those subjects where knowledge is cumulative and where students need to learn sequentially." There were worries that additional student workloads may "squeeze out non-curricular activities, which can be so valuable as learning experiences".

The extra costs associated with delivering the new curriculum could also cause problems."Inevitably, there will be unevenness in provision and this may make it difficult to compare applicants to higher education from different schools and colleges and from different areas." This means universities are unlikely to make the new qualifications explicit entry requirements.

College and school leaders have warned universities that they must give a clear indication of their attitudes to the reforms. But the CVCP will stress "there can be no uniform answer".

Admissions policies vary and are up to individual institutions, departments and courses. "This has always been the case and a greater range of new post-16 qualifications is not about to make uniformity any more likely," Professor Floud will say. He will also pour cold water on hopes that the reforms will usher in a pre-qualifications admissions process.

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