Education system 'is too weak to survive'

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The GCSE and A-level system should be scrapped within a decade and replaced with a diploma under the biggest shake-up of exams for more than 50 years, a government inquiry has recommended.

The GCSE and A-level system should be scrapped within a decade and replaced with a diploma under the biggest shake-up of exams for more than 50 years, a government inquiry has recommended.

The former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson, who published the results of his inquiry into education for 14- to 19-year-olds yesterday, said the present system had too many "weaknesses" to survive.

His package would scrap externally marked, end-of-year tests for 16-year-olds almost entirely, but toughen up sixth-form exams to include harder questions allowing pupils to attain a new A++ grade.

The system would be introduced gradually over the next 10 years, with a full trial of the diploma beginning in 2009-10.

Mr Tomlinson insisted that the reforms would not mean the abolition of A-levels and GCSEs - which could continue as components of the diploma.

Last night, the Government's response to the proposals was unclear. Tony Blair and Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, stopped short of endorsing the new diploma. Speaking at a Confederation of British Industry dinner in Birmingham, the Prime Minister said: "GCSEs and A-levels will stay. So will externally marked exams." But Mr Clarke said that doing nothing was "not an option" and announced that a White Paper would be published early in the new year, outlining how the reforms would be implemented.

The Conservatives and representatives of the CBI said an overhaul of the examinations system was unnecessary.

While Mr Tomlinson made clear that it would take 10 years to introduce the whole package (it should be "a managed evolution and not a revolution", he wrote in the foreword), the report indicated that work on many of the reforms would start before then.

One of the first changes, to be implemented as early as next year, would be a plan for universities to see a breakdown of the marks and grades of candidates with A-grade passes at A-level - to help them identify the brightest pupils from among more than 20 per cent who tend to achieve A-grade passes. Moves to split the A grade into three further grades, A, A+ and A++, would then be implemented as a trial.

Mr Tomlinson said he would be satisfied if only 5 per cent of youngsters achieved the A++ grade - the approximate proportion of elite students that the Russell Group universities look for as potential recruits for their courses. The next reform to be installed would be tests in basic skills such as numeracy, language and communication skills - which would be ready in 2008 and taken by all students. No one will be granted a diploma until they have passed these three tests.

A big reduction in the number of tests and exams for the next generation of pupils would also be in place by then - the proportion of coursework would be reduced at GCSE level and most pupils' exams would be marked by their teachers rather than external examiners.

An extended project - a university-style dissertation for candidates of A-level calibre and an extended piece of coursework in one subject for GCSE pupils - would be tried out at the same time. The four-tier diploma - available at entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced level - would be piloted the following year, with a view to introducing it in 2014.

As he introduced his report yesterday, Mr Tomlinson conceded that there might be a need for more testing of youngsters at 14, to decide which options they should pursue under the diploma.

He called for a further review - of children aged five to 14 - to make sure that pupils were equipped to take advantage of the new system. "In order for them to take advantage of the range of opportunities, we need to have more knowledge about their attainment at that stage of their lives," he said.

Mr Tomlinson also warned ministers that the package would be costly, but added: "A lot of the costs that are associated with picking up the pieces afterwards need not be there if we adopt this system.

"Let's not always be looking for remedial answers for what went wrong - in terms of 90 per cent of our young people in prison having poor literacy and numeracy levels. Let's be preventative. As the Americans have said, if you think this is expensive, try ignorance."

Teachers' leaders welcomed the proposals. David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "If the Government, higher education and employers do not give the report a fair wind, it will be a disaster."

John Cridland, deputy director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: "The CBI cannot yet give a green light to these proposals. Business must be convinced that more will be gained than lost by re-organising 14 to 19-year-olds' qualifications." He said literacy and numeracy should be improved. But Ian Ferguson, chairman of Data Connections and a member of the CBI's education and training committee, said: "If you look at what the CBI wants from young people and look at the diploma, there is almost a 100 per cent match."

TIMETABLE FOR REFORM

2005: Universities can see A-level students' marks and different unit grades to help them choose high-flyers for courses. Splitting A grade at A-level into three (A, A+ and A++) piloted later.

2007-8: GCSE moves towards internal marking of most subjects; coursework scrapped in most subjects; number of modules for A-levels reduced from six to four.

2008: First compulsory tests in basic skills of numeracy, languages and communications technology - students must pass in each of the three subject areas; first guidance to schools on introducing the extended project or essay to show students' thinking skills.

2009-10: Pilots of full diploma tested in schools over a four-year period.

2014: Full implementation of four-tier diploma system: entry for those who at present struggle to obtain GCSEs; foundation for those obtaining D to G grade passes (equivalent to old Certificate of Secondary Education); intermediate, pitched at level of those now getting five top grade A* to C grade GCSE passes; and advanced, equivalent to A-level.

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