Secondary Schools Prepare for Radical Education Reforms; EDUCATION MATTERS REFORMS Education Correspondent Shahid Naqvi Finds out If Schools Are Ready for One of the Biggest Changes to Secondary Education in 40 Years

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Byline: Shahid Naqvi

If the hype's to be believed, next September marks year zero for Britain's secondary schools.

The dawn of a radically new regime that will fundamentally change the way children are taught.

The first five of 14 new employer-led diploma qualifications will start to be taught, representing a major new emphasis on vocational learning.

"Functional skills" in English, maths and ICT are to be piloted within GCSEs, designed to make sure youngsters do not leave school ill-equipped in the basics.

More challenging A-levels also come in, with a new A* to stretch the brightest pupils, tougher open-ended questions and a reduction in the number of modules.

Such is the scale of the change, that many within education are looking at 2008 with an increasing sense of dread.

Some, including headteachers, feel they have not been left enough time to implement the grand plans that civil servants have spent years hatching in Whitehall.

The feeling of anger was most recently expressed at the National Association of Head Teachers's annual conference.

Eric Fisk, chairman of the association's secondary education committee, warned: "It is no exaggeration to say we are in the eye of the storm."

Most criticism appears to be focused on the pace of change rather than the reforms themselves.

Kings Norton Boys' School in Birmingham is among the first to start teaching a specialist diploma in performing arts next year.

The school's head Roy Baylis said: "It is like a lot of things that come out of the DfES. The idea is a fantastic one because it gives another strand of qualification for students to choose from. Some students are best suited for the traditional academic route but for other students the way they learn is far better suited for vocational options.

"But the devil is in the detail and we haven't seen the detail. From talking to my colleagues, there is a general concern that perhaps we would like a bit more time to have some of our questions answered."

One of the most radical things about the new vocational diplomas is that they will involve pupils being taught in a variety of settings outside school, such as colleges and work places.

"This issue of being multi-centered raises some concerns," said Mr Baylis. …