Leading article: Clarke needs to act fast

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The Independent Online

Next week's publication of the Tomlinson report on the education of young people aged 14 to 19 is unlikely to spring any big surprises on the waiting education world.

Next week's publication of the Tomlinson report on the education of young people aged 14 to 19 is unlikely to spring any big surprises on the waiting education world. We already know that its key proposal will be to replace GCSEs and A-levels with an overarching diploma. But what will be interesting to see is how quickly the former chief schools' inspector's recommendations will be implemented by ministers. While we recognise the need for the new diploma to be introduced carefully - with the kind of proper pilots that were so conspicuously lacking with the introduction of the new AS-levels in 2000 - there are several recommendations that should be given urgent attention. These proposals could be implemented before the diploma is introduced in 10 years' time. The most important one is to give university admissions staff the necessary tools to differentiate between the large number of high-grade applicants, now that more than 20 per cent of scripts achieve an A-grade pass at A-level. There are several ways in which this could be done. Tomlinson told private school heads last week that he favours abolishing the Advanced Extension Awards - the so-called "world-class tests" - and including the kind of questions posed in them in A-level papers to test the thinking skills of high-flying pupils. The point is that this is a reform to existing A-levels that does not have to await the introduction of the new diploma. Likewise, moves to reduce the examination burden on pupils could be introduced swiftly. The idea that sixth-formers need not take an AS-level in a subject they intend to pursue through to a full A-level is a case in point.

The education secretary Charles Clarke is wisely seeking all-party consensus on as many of the Tomlinson proposals as possible. This is essential because, with a 10-year timespan before full implementation, its introduction could well straddle the lifetime of three parliaments. However, there is a danger that - in seeking to avoid political confrontation - decisive action on essential, if minor, parts of the package may be delayed until after the next general election. That would be to let down the sixth-formers who are in our secondary schools already. Mr Clarke could take a leaf out of Conservative leader Michael Howard's book and produce a timetable for action on the reforms that could be implemented without further delay.

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