Exam 'overhaul' that retains A-level criticised on all sides

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The Independent Online

Ministers provoked near-universal hostility from the education world last night by refusing to replace the existing GCSE and A-level exam system with a new diploma.

Ministers provoked near-universal hostility from the education world last night by refusing to replace the existing GCSE and A-level exam system with a new diploma.

Teachers' leaders, independent schools heads, academics, universities and school inspectors queued up to condemn Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, for missing "a golden opportunity" to reform an archaic examination system.

Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector who headed the inquiry that produced the recommendation, admitted he was disappointed by the decision. He said it risked "emphasising the distinction between the vocational and the academic".

Ms Kelly insisted her package - which included plans for 14 separate specialist vocational diplomas to sit alongside A-levels - would end the "intellectual snobbery" over vocational exams.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, described the decision as a "lost opportunity" to create a coherent examinations system for the 21st century.

There was a widespread feeling that the Prime Minister, backed away from the Tomlinson blueprint for fear of entering a general election campaign as the man who wanted to abolish A-levels - often referred to as the "gold standard" of education.

Mr Dunford said: "The Tomlinson diploma, carefully crafted with the support of employers, universities, colleges and schools, has been strangled at birth. Electoral tactics, it seems, have taken precedence over educational logic."

David Bell, the head of Ofsted - the education standards watchdog - and the chief inspector of schools, said: "Continuing with the current GCSE and A-level structure carries the risk of continuing the historic divide between academic and vocational courses which has ill-served too many young people in the past."

Some critics, however, were pinning their faith in an announcement by Ms Kelly that the Government would review the position in 2008 - a pledge said to have been wrung from Downing Street by ministerial supporters of the diploma.

Sir Mike pledged to campaign to get ministers to back more radical changes by then.

Yesterday's package was, however, welcomed by employers for tackling the crisis which has led to millions of adults lacking the skills in maths and English needed for the world of work.

Sir Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: "I'm delighted that A-levels and GCSEs are here to stay." Ms Kelly had "responded to business concerns, saying no pupil should leave school without the sound grasp of literacy and numeracy that employers need".

The White Paper is recommending a new diploma at GCSE level - which would be awarded to all pupils who get five A* to C grade passes at GCSE provided they include maths and English. Each school would have the percentage of pupils achieving the diploma recorded in its exam league table results and - in order to achieve a C grade pass - pupils would have to show they had mastered basic literacy and numeracy skills.

The package also envisages setting up a network of skills academies - schools and colleges which would specialise in vocational qualifications from the age of 14.

THE MAIN POINTS

* A-levels and GCSEs retained. A-levels to stretch brightest pupils by including questions of first-year university standard.

* 4,000-word, extended essay piloted to develop A-level pupils' thinking skills.

* Coursework reduced amid allegations that pupils have cheated by getting their parents to do it or by cribbing from internet.

* 14 specialist vocational diplomas set up to run alongside A-levels. First four - in engineering, IT, health and social care, and creative and media studies - to be running by 2008.

* No overarching diploma as suggested by Tomlinson - decision for review in 2008.

* Target of 90 per cent of all 17-year-olds staying on in education, training or appren-ticeships by end of decade - up from 75 per cent.

* New GCSE diploma awarded to all with five A* to C grade passes - must include English and maths.

* Percentage of pupils with this diploma recorded in school league tables.

* No pupil to get C grade in maths or English without showing they have mastered literacy and numeracy.

* Skills academies set up to specialise in vocational education from age 14.

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