Details revealed of plans to replace GCSEs and A-levels

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The Independent Online

A major shake-up of the way the performance of secondary school pupils is assessed and graded was unveiled today by the Government review of 14-19 education.

As expected, the working party on 14-19 reform, headed by former chief schools inspector Mike Tomlinson, said GCSEs and A-levels should evolve into being components of a new four-tier "diploma" for students in England.

A-level grades could be replaced by a seven-point scale, with the top marks being as hard to achieve as the current Advanced Extension awards for high-fliers are intended to be.

And the A-star to G-grade GCSE scale could be split into two to recognise varying performance in the "foundation" and "intermediate" levels of the diploma.

Replacing A-level grades with a seven-point scale akin to that used by the International Baccalaureate would help universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol to distinguish between candidates who currently get three As or more, said the report.

Mr Tomlinson's interim report - the final version is due in September - asked for views on whether the entire diploma should be graded on a pass/merit/distinction basis, as happens under the French baccalaureate.

This would be on top of the gradings for individual components that universities and employers required for selecting recruits, he said.

The diploma - which could replace A-levels and GCSEs within 10 years - was intended to combine the flexibility, depth and choice of A-levels at one end with the need to ensure all young people left school with the same "core" skills.

And it was intended to enable pupils to do academic or vocational subjects - or a mixture of the two - in a way that gave both paths equal status.

All pupils would have to study maths, "communication" and information and communication technology under the core.

They would be expected to reach the equivalent of at least a GCSE C grade in those areas, as employers complained that too many young people leave school without a good grasp of the basics.

The core of any diploma would also require pupils to do an "extended project or personal challenge" pegged to the level of difficulty of the diploma.

And the core would also require pupils to "develop a range of knowledge, skills and attributes such as self-awareness, self-management and interpersonal skills."

They would also have to show they have done a range of extra-curricular activities, including community work and part-time jobs.

The rest of the diploma - known as the "main learning" programme - would be composed of specific subjects and courses chosen by students themselves.

These would then lead to either "specialised" or "open" diplomas, with the latter enabling students to do a "mixed pattern of subjects".

Mr Tomlinson stressed that, while external public exams would continue to be used for many parts of the diploma, including the core of maths, communication and ICT, other units could be assessed by teachers, college lecturers or industry trainers, or via computer "e-assessment".

The diplomas were also intended to link up with modern apprenticeships as well as make academic courses more difficult than A-levels at the top end for the brightest students.

Launching his report, Mr Tomlinson said: "The time for reform has come. Too many young people leave learning or fail to progress.

"Too many are left unchallenged and constrained by the curriculum they are offered and young people and their teachers are burdened by inflexible assessment.

"The interim report sets out the proposals for a new structure that will move 14-19 learning on from a system that works well for some, to one that will meet the learning needs of all."

Mr Tomlinson stressed that, while the diploma would require all school leavers to gain the equivalent of at least a C in mathematical skills and communication, those two elements of the core were not the same as GCSE Maths and English.

The report said: "The existing GCSE English is not a good proxy for communication skills.

"The diploma and programme requirements should include a minimum specified level of functional language and communication knowledge and skills at each level of the new framework."

The Government's review of maths education is due to publish its report next week and Mr Tomlinson made it clear its proposals would shape further debate on the diploma.

His report said that the ability to use mathematical skills and concepts was a "crucial component of learning" but a "significant weakness" in the English education system was its failure to deliver this "competence".

While the report included little detail of what the maths element of the diploma would contain it indicated that it would look very different to the current Maths GCSE.

The report said: "This should be underpinned by ways of encouraging earlier and more effective learning of mathematical skills amongst those who do not respond well to existing GCSE Maths, and for whom the current post-16 emphasis on 'key skills' is seen as remedial and a distraction from their main learning.

"If this is to be successful, we need to overcome the learning phobia which undermines some young people's motivation and their confidence in their ability to progress in mathematics, by providing an accessible and flexible range of mathematics options.

"We also need to tackle the distinction between mathematics as an academic subject and application of number as a key skill."

It added: "In our proposed diploma core, the requirement would be the skills-based mathematics courses, which would be specifically designed to promote the functional mathematical skills which everybody needs.

"More theoretical and conceptual modes of maths would form part of main learning."