School exams shake-up heralds four-level diploma

Sixteen-year-olds will no longer spend days in the exam hall every summer under plans announced today to scrap mass public testing for all but the "core" subjects.

Most external examinations at what is now GCSE level will go, to be replaced with internal school assessments carried out by teachers.

The proposals formed part of the biggest planned shake-up of English education for 60 years, unveiled today by former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke will give the Government's response to the plans this afternoon.

As expected, Mr Tomlinson called for the existing qualifications of GCSEs and A-Levels to be replaced with a new four-level diploma.

But the current qualifications will not be scrapped immediately, as the new diploma would take 10 years to be introduced.

In a move designed to ease employers' concerns over low levels of literacy and numeracy among teenagers, everyone will have to master basic maths, English and computing.

The blueprint for education for 14 to 19 year-olds also aims to stop teenagers dropping out of school and provide a more stretching challenge for the brightest students.

"The status quo is simply not an option," said Mr Tomlinson.

"The way ahead is through evolution rather than revolution," he said.

"Change is not readily embraced, but we are convinced it is needed if we are to enable all our young people to achieve as highly as possible.

"If as a consequence we manage to instil in every young person a continuing love for learning throughout their lives, then the reform will truly have been successful."

One major shift will be cutting "the burden of assessment" now endured by both teachers and students at GCSE and A-Level.

Too much time is spent preparing for exams which could be used for genuine learning, the government working group report said.

The average student now has to sit about 40 public examinations between the ages of 16 and 18.

Existing GCSE exams would be scrapped and "teacher-led" assessment would be the main way of testing students at this age.

Some external testing would continue, particularly in the "core" elements of the diploma - basic literacy and numeracy.

The reforms would also see a massive cut in the amount of coursework students have to do as much of it is currently repetitive.

And they could also save £60 million currently spent on moderators and examiners for GCSEs and GNVQ courses.

The current system of six units to make up an A-level would also be cut to four, the report said.

Another key proposal was to offer much better options for work-related courses.

Mr Tomlinson said this was "absolutely essential" as Britain has one of the highest drop-out rates for post-16 education in the industrialised world.

The brightest students studying what are now A-level courses should be able to take on work normally reserved for the first year of a university degree.

They will be rewarded with two new grades - an A+ and an A++.

These changes aim to help top universities like Oxford and Cambridge pick out the very best students, when almost a quarter get A-grades at A-level now.

Ministers are expected to set out their formal response to the report later.

But there is already anxiety that the Government will "cherry pick" a few of the plans and leave the rest.

Mr Tomlinson said: "There is always the possibility of cherry picking but I would advise the Government to keep the reforms in their structural integrity."

It will be possible to introduce the changes in 10 years if ministers take a decision early in the new year, he said.

The reforms would be more expensive to implement than the current system, he said, without putting a figure on the likely costs.

But the bill for ducking reform would be much higher in the long run, with youngsters in prison and poor levels of basic literacy, he said.

"If you can create routes to get young people engaged, then you will lower the cost of picking up the pieces afterwards.

"That is the key. It will be cheaper in the long run."

Teachers leaders broadly welcomed the plans but some expressed concerns that the move to more internal assessment might result in much more work for staff.

The business world was not convinced that the reforms would achieve the goal of raising levels of numeracy and literacy.

The CBI said: "Business must be convinced that more will be gained than lost by reorganising 14 to 19-year-olds' qualifications."