New 'super A-level' for teenagers

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The school examinations system is heading for its biggest shake-up for 60 years with the publication tomorrow of the long-awaited report by the former schools inspector Mike Tomlinson.

His proposals will include the introduction of a new diploma in place of the present GCSE and A-level system, reducing the number of external tests taken by 16- to 18-year-olds.

To obtain a diploma, school pupils and FE students will have to pass basic tests in English, maths and computers - a reform aimed at ending the complaints from employers and universities that they are being sent applicants with good paper qualifications who cannot spell or add up.

Mr Tomlinson will also offer a solution to the complaints heard last summer that too many students are obtaining A grades at A-level, making it hard for top universities to identify the very best.

He will propose new A-plus and A-double plus grades. The "gold-plated" A-double plus is likely to be achieved by only about one student out of 20, marking out those who would be in line for places at the top universities.

To obtain their diploma, students will have to complete an extended project, which at A-level standard will involve an essay of up to 4,000 words, which will test their skill at research and at presenting an argument. The essays will be made available to universities.

Ministers hope one effect of the report will be to raise the age at which people leave education to 18, by ensuring that every 16- or 17-year-old not going on to university has the offer of vocational education or a modern apprenticeship. While ministers have taken care to secure all-party support for Mr Tomlinson's proposals - the biggest overhaul of the exam system since the 1944 Education Act - the biggest flashpoint is likely to be over the future of GCSEs.

Leading academics and opposition MPs are worried that reducing the number of external tests for 16-year-olds will mean those who leave school at that age will not have an externally validated qualification to present to employers.

Professor Alan Smithers, head of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, insisted an externally marked, national school-leaving certificate was still necessary. "There will still be youngsters who want to leave at 16, no matter what the report offers them," he said.

The idea of "gold-plated" A grades will get backing from the Tory party, but they want to revert to the system they abolished in the 1980s under which only a fixed proportion of school leavers obtained the top grades.

In a speech tomorrow, the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, is also expected to promise to overhaul the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which has been accused of lowering standards.

Mr Tomlinson also argues that the GCSE - or whatever replaces it at 16 - will lose its importance as an end-of-education test as more youngsters choose to study further.

Mr Tomlinson's proposals would see the current system replaced with a four-tier diploma - at entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced level. Advanced would be equivalent to A-levels, and intermediate to five top-grade GCSE passes.

The proposed 4,000-word extended essay would replace much of the coursework done under the present system.