Pupils who fail maths and English tests will be refused the new diplomas which are set to replace GCSEs and A-levels, it emerged yesterday.
In the most radical shake-up of the schools system in 50 years, Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, unveiled plans yesterday to abolish the existing exams system for secondary school pupils and replace it with a new qualification.
Students must achieve at least the equivalent of a grade C pass at GCSE in the tests before they can be awarded the new diploma. The new tests, a compulsory part of the proposed diploma unveiled by Mr Tomlinson, are designed to ensure that the next generation of pupils leaves school equipped for work.
Half of all 16-year-olds fail to get a GCSE grade C in maths and 44 per cent fail to do so in English. Mr Tomlinson, who is heading a government inquiry into 14 to 19 education, said youngsters could at present show employers a range of good GCSE passes "but they may not have English and maths to an appropriate level". He made it clear the new tests would not be the same as existing maths and English GCSEs, but would highlight numeracy and communications skills. There would also be a compulsory test in information technology. A pupil who passed the tests would be showing equivalent skills to getting a C grade pass in existing GCSEs.
As revealed exclusively in The Independent, Mr Tomlinson's report called for the replacement of the existing GCSE and A-level exam system with a four-tier diploma. The four levels are: advanced (the equivalent of A-levels), intermediate (A* to C grade GCSE passes), foundation (lower grade GCSE passes) and entry.
The report made it clear the new advanced diploma would be set at a higher level than A-levels and incorporate the new Advanced Extension Awards (dubbed world-class tests) introduced by Tony Blair.
Members of the committee will consider replacing the existing A to E grade passes at A-level with a new six or seven grade, designed to make it easier for universities to select the brightest candidates. Admissions officers have claimed that is currently impossible; one in five candidates receive A-grade passes.
Mr Tomlinson also signalled a dramatic shake-up of Britain's exam boards. He said he would like to see a single awarding body offering the diploma, instead of the three main exam boards that now operate: the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, Edexcel, Oxford and Cambridge and the Royal Society of Art.
"Otherwise you would get to the point where two or three are offered by different bodies and you would tend to weigh up which is the easiest of the three," Mr Tomlinson said.
Officials said the committee would study this proposal in the final part of the review. Mr Tomlinson is to produce his final report by September after consultation on his proposals, which received a mixed reaction from headteachers, universities and employers.
Independent schools - which had been critical of the diploma plan andhad preferred to keep A-levels - backed it. Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents the top private boys' schools including Eton and Harrow, said: "We're much more positive about it at this stage."
Independent schools have been won over by the committee's decision to ditch the International Baccalaureate approach of compulsory sixth-form subjects. Under the IB, all pupils have to study a science, a foreign language, an arts subject and maths.
Hugh Carson, who heads Malvern College and is chairman of the IB committee of HMC, criticised the package. He said: "Someone needs to say that if you want to have genuine breadth in sixth-form studies you need to be more prescriptive. These proposals just sound like key skills being added on, and that didn't work the first time."
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: "Tomlinson's proposals have much to commend them. But there is much that is good in the existing examination system that must not be lost."
Mr Tomlinson stressed that any shift from GCSEs and A-levels would be evolutionary. "I can assure any 13- or 14-year-old in school today that what they are studying will not be altered by this," he said.
Yesterday's report also confirmed that pupils would be encouraged to sit exams when they were ready, leading to more mixed-age group classes.
Students: 'It will give people credit for what they can do'
Plans to replace A-levels and GCSEs with a new overarching diploma were welcomed yesterday by teenagers who said they wished they could have had the opportunity to study for the new qualification.
James Harrold, 17, a sixthformer at Stoke Park School in Coventry, who is studying A-level courses in engineering, maths and music technology, welcomed the proposals but warned that careers advice must be improved to help students make the right choices.
"At the moment if you decide to leave school at 16 you are out on your own and it is up to you to get a job or find a way into education or training."
But he praised the idea of allowing every student to build up an academic CV or transcript.
"At the moment you just get a bit of paper with the name of each qualification you've got and employers have to ask you what exactly you covered," he said."But the idea of replacing coursework with one big extended project concerns me. A lot of my friends prefer to do coursework after each module rather than do one big exam or piece of coursework at the end."
Kerry Henstock, 18, who left school with 12 GCSEs aged 16 to become an apprentice engineer at Rolls-Royce, believes the new diploma will boost the profile of the modern apprentice scheme - on-the-job training for 16 to 24-year-olds.
"There is an impression that being an apprentice is for the less able," she said. "My apprenticeship has been fantastic - I've studied courses worth four A-levels and gained all the practical knowledge that will help me in my career.
"I know some people might find the compulsory subjects hard - but maths, communication and ICT are really important so I think it's good that everyone will have to do them."
Martin Stephenson, 20, dropped out of school aged 13 and now earns £150 a week working as a labourer on a building site in Bradford. He argues that a diploma-style qualification would have motivated him to stay on at school.
"I was the kind of kid who just mucked about in lessons," he said. "I think the diploma is a really good idea. I really like the way there are four different levels so you don't have to try something too hard and fail. I would like to go back into education to improve my maths because you need good maths for building work. This diploma would make it more attractive."
Stephanie Holmes, 15, who will take five GCSEs at Abbey Wood School in Greenwich, south London, this summer and plans to train as a veterinary nurse, said the new diploma and its credit-based system would enable those "who have bodged up their education" to get a second chance.
"This will give people credit for what they can do and the practical skills they have got. It will help kids who drop out get back into to education and will mean that they can pick up where they left off rather than having to start right from the beginning again."
Teachers: 'It's a necessary transition'
Gareth Matthewson, president of the National Association of Head Teachers and head of Whitchurch High School in Cardiff, said: "At last we have a long-term vision for a 14 to 19 education system. Reform is long overdue. Curriculum 2000 has not worked.
"The Tomlinson report provides an agenda that meets many of the criticisms of the current framework. It lays the ground for a careful, planned transition. GCSE, AS and A levels will not disappear overnight. It was pure scaremongering to suggest otherwise. This is not a full-blown baccalaureate, but it is a baccalaureate-style system that genuinely broadens study for all students.
"There is absolutely no justification for business or for higher education to reject the Tomlinson report. It gives employers virtually everything they want and it provides universities with an advanced diploma which is suitable for entrance to higher education.
"It is absolutely essential that a diploma is created which removes artificial barriers between routes and which recognises a core of achievement at all levels across maths, English, IT, communication skills, extra-curricular activities and a personal project in addition to specialised subjects."
His association "strongly supports the reduction in the burden of assessment and in the current coursework demands".
Business: 'Firms will take some convincing'
Digby Jones, the director general of the CBI, said: "What matters is not the exam system we have but what young people are able to achieve.
"It is right to stretch the most able students, but we must never forget the unacceptable numbers who leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills. This is so damaging to UK productivity.
"Any reform will be measured by whether it helps those at risk of being left behind, and gives them a recognisable currency of achievement.''
He added: "Firms will take some convincing that a major upheaval would not be a serious distraction from the main priorities. The Government must aim to raise standards in education, and not simply change structures.
"Half of 16-year-olds do not get a GCSE grade C or above in maths and 44 per cent fail to do so in English. Around 80 per cent of jobs in this country require five GCSEs or equivalent, but half of young people finish compulsory education without achieving this.
"We agree with the concentration on vocational training - the Government and employers should get behind this aspect [of the proposed reforms].
The Engineering Employers' Federation also welcomed the proposals, but warned: "Whilst this report hits many of the right notes, the issue is far too important to make a knee-jerk reaction."
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