Drop A-levels and GCSEs for baccalaureate, says review

A dramatic reduction in the number of tests sat by secondary school pupils was proposed yesterday in the official blueprint for reform of the examination system.

Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector who is conducting an inquiry into education for 14 to 19-year-olds, said pupils spent so much time preparing for exams that they failed to develop independent learning skills.

As a result, he said, when university admissions officials were presented with candidates with A-level passes, "nobody's got any assurance you've got the numeracy or literacy skills to progress with your academic studies".

Mr Tomlinson, who published proposals for a baccalaureate-style system under which youngsters would study a broader range of subjects, said he wanted to move away from external tests and exams to more internal assessment of pupils' work by teachers.

He said: "For GCSE/A level students, preparation and examination time may amount to two terms or more over four years. This reduces the time available for teaching and represents a significant opportunity cost for the learner.

"In international terms, we are unusually dependent upon external assessment in accrediting achievement of young people. We are particularly keen to reinforce the role of assessment which is based on the professional judgement of teachers ... We do not believe that, with effective training and monitoring, internal assessment is necessarily less reliable than external assessment."

His comments are certain to provoke an outcry from traditionalists, who will claim that the new model is a "dumbing down" of standards which opens the door to more opportunities for cheating.

But Mr Tomlinson said: "Pencil and paper examinations are not necessarily the best way to test someone's performance. If somebody is confident orally, you're not going to find out. If I want a plumber, I want to be able to know he can do the job, not that he can sit a three-hour examination in the theory of it. This country is unique in its reliance on external examination."

Under Mr Tomlinson's proposals, the current GCSE and A-level system would be replaced by a four-level diploma which would include both educational performance and an insight into a young person's character through recording items such as sports and drama achievements.

There would be a core element of basic skills studies including maths, English, information technology and possibly modern languages. The entry level would be equivalent to a certificate in basic skills and the highest, advanced level would be equivalent to AS and A-levels. The inquiry team has not yet decided whether existing exams would be abolished or would count towards the new diploma.

In justifying the case for change, the Tomlinson report delivers a withering indictment of the present system, claiming that it has led to a 50 per cent failure rate among school students, as only those who have five top-grade passes at GCSE have their qualifications recognised by employers.

The report adds that youngsters who cram 10 GCSEs into their studies "sometimes find they have little time or encouragement to develop the independent learning skills required for further study".

It also criticises the Government's "Curriculum 2000", which saw AS-levels introduced as a half A-level at the end of the first year of the sixth form.

The report said the reforms had been "far less successful" than envisaged in promoting breadth of study.

The report said: "Most learners have opted for complementary rather than contrasting learning experiences.

"Learning in the AS has, in many instances, been perceived as rushed and superficial and teachers feel under pressure to teach to the test and learners to focus on maximising their grade, sometimes at the expense of wider, exploratory learning."

The proposals were widely welcomed by heads and teachers' organisations yesterday - although the Conservatives warned that they would confuse universities and employers.

Damian Green, the shadow Secretary of State for Education, said: "These recommendations would do nothing to restore confidence in A-levels which is so necessary after last year's fiasco."

Mr Tomlinson said it would take 10 years to introduce the system - an indication that government ministers and the inquiry team are anxious to avoid a repeat of last year's A-level grading débâcle.

That was largely brought about by the fact that the new A2s (the second year of sixth-form study for A-levels after the introduction of the AS) had not been trialled.