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 Wednesday, 21 August, 2002, 17:56 GMT 18:56 UK
'Radical agenda' for teenage education
Teenagers will have a more individualised curriculum
The culture of non-academic pupils leaving school at the age of 16 is being challenged by a major shake-up of the school curriculum in England.

The government's proposals for the education system for 14 to 19 year olds will pave the way for more flexible and work-related options, which will encourage all youngsters to stay in education and vocational training until the age of 19.

14 to 19 reforms:
'Matriculation diplomas' for 19 year olds
Widen vocational options
Allow some pupils to drop most academic subjects
Allow bright pupils to skip GCSEs
English, maths, science and IT remain compulsory
Assert equal status of vocational courses
'Distinction' grade at A-level
Launch exams in engineering and tourism

The Education Secretary Estelle Morris, announcing plans for a more individual approach to learning, says she wants to escape the "educational straitjacket that stifles talent".

Pupils will be able to pursue a vocational or academic path, through schools, colleges and workplace training, following courses that suit their abilities and aptitudes.

This might be reinforced by a new "over-arching" qualification for 19 year olds, called the "matriculation diploma", which will combine elements of both academic and vocational subjects.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister Tony Blair said that this flexible curriculum marked a shift away from a "one-size-fits-all" approach.

There will also be changes for existing exams, with bright "fast-track" pupils being able to by-pass GCSEs and go straight to AS-levels.

Bright pupils will be allowed to skip GCSEs and go straight to AS-levels

The GCSE has now been defined by the government as a "progress check" for the majority of pupils who continue to other higher qualifications.

There will be changes for A-levels, which will acquire a new top award, the "distinction" grade, which will provide more demanding questions for the most gifted students.

And there will be a much wider range of vocational options.

"We should no longer tolerate a culture that devalues vocational learning and squanders the talent of too many young people," said Ms Morris.

Estelle Morris
Estelle Morris has spoken against the "rigid structures" in the education system

In order to "free up" the timetable to make space for vocational qualifications, students will be able to drop many academic subjects at the age of 14.

This will include allowing pupils to stop learning a modern language - but in a separate move, the government has announced that it will be introducing modern language lessons to all primary schools by the end of the decade.

The reforms are presented in the government's Green Paper on 14 to 19 education, published on Tuesday, which seeks to customise learning for different types of pupils.

Presented as the biggest reform in secondary education in the country for a decade, the new blueprint will encourage schools to let the most able pupils progress at their own, faster pace.

'Grade inflation?'

Ms Morris denied that allowing bright pupils to by-pass GCSEs was in response to claims of grade inflation, but rather to head teachers' calls for greater flexibility for their pupils.

Damian Green
Damian Green dismissed the matriculation diploma as a "meaningless" qualification

"They know best what is suitable for their children and I want to give them that flexibility, rather than making them all plod through the same hurdles at exactly the same pace.

"That's what I want to do, but it's not about grade inflation," said Ms Morris.

The minister said she had no plans to abolish GCSEs, AS-levels or A-levels and promised teachers a "period of stability".

"All those qualifications are robust , valued and have a role to play - I want to be able to say to heads 'look at them when you're tailoring the curriculum to meet the needs of your individual children.'"

Vocational learning

Work-based skills will become part of mainstream secondary education - and the government wants a "parity of esteem" with traditional academic qualifications.

Pupils be able to study for vocational GCSEs and A-levels, such as tourism and engineering, which will include spending time in workplaces as well as the classroom.

It believes that opening up vocational pathways will encourage pupils who have "switched off" from traditional subjects.

However implementing an expansion of vocational courses will need a substantial increase in funding, a further education organisation has warned.

The Association of Colleges says that training for a fifth of young people will cost an extra 372m in 2005-2006, based on two days a week in college and one day in workplace training.

'Insult to less academic'

The Shadow Education Secretary Damian Green has also challenged the likely impact of the reforms.

The proposed matriculation diploma, he said, was "a meaningless qualification which will not be valued by young people, universities or employers".

"This Green Paper fails to address the real problems in our schools: lack of discipline, teacher shortages, and doubts over exam standards.

"Offering less academic children a devalued qualification is an insult. What they need is a decent basic education and well thought-out vocational courses designed in close collaboration with industry, there is no sign of that in this Green Paper."

'GCSE should be abandoned'

The Liberal Democrats were also sceptical about how much difference would be made by the proposed changes, with accusations that the Green Paper had been too cautious.

"All the evidence is that we are failing to meet the needs of some 50% of our young people, failing to meet the needs of industry yet this Green Paper clings desperately to the past," said education spokesperson, Phil Willis.

"It is clear GCSE needs to be abandoned but the Secretary of State has failed to provide a vision for a new credit accumulation system that would serve the needs of all young people."

  The BBC's Mike Baker
"The aim is a bold one"
  Education Secretary, Estelle Morris
"We want schools to provide flexibility"
  Shadow Education Secretary Damian Green
"Re-badging exams is the wrong way to reform education"
  Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis
"The GCSE is an outdated examination"

Main proposals

Other changes

Analysis: Mike Baker
See also:

12 Feb 02 | Education
12 Feb 02 | Education
12 Feb 02 | Education
11 Feb 02 | Education
11 Feb 02 | Education
11 Feb 02 | Education
12 Feb 02 | Education
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