Schools could still provide GCSEs and A-levels after exam overhaul

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The Independent Online

Schools will still be able to offer GCSEs and A-levels to their pupils if the Government scraps the present exams system, it emerged yesterday.

They can boycott the new diploma proposed by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, in his government inquiry into the exams system. Exam boards are making it clear that, whatever ministers decide to do, they will still offer GCSEs and A-levels to "those countries and students that want them". Exam board sources say they have received several calls from overseas asking them if they will still be able to use the present UK examination system if the report's reforms are given the green light.

Ken Murray, the chief executive of Cambridge International Examinations, an offshoot of the OCR exam board, said "they will remain leading international qualifications, irrespective of any decisions relating to qualifications in the UK".

Sources indicated they would also be available to schools in the UK. They could be offered alongside the diploma, in the same way that the International Baccalaureate is already available as an alternative in 70 British secondary schools, both state and independent.

CIE already markets an international GCSE - which is more traditional in content, shunning coursework and being similar in content to the old O-level - and A-level abroad.

Independent schools are already beginning to show a growing interest in the international exam, with Harrow becoming the latest to offer it in maths in place of the UK exam.

At present, there is a barrier to state schools offering the international version of the exams because they have not been recognised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog - although that could change. Up until now state schools have been unable to receive funding for them.

Ministers have so far steered clear of making any commitment as to whether and to what extent they will implement the reforms outlined in the Tomlinson report. A White Paper detailing the Government's position will be published early in the new year. Any threat of a boycott of the proposed new diploma, however, is likely to make Downing Street - and Tony Blair in particular - more wary of backing it.

In his report, Mr Tomlinson advocates sweeping away the existing GCSE and A-level system within a decade and replacing it with a four-tier diploma. But his report stresses that GCSEs and A-levels would be incorporated into the new diploma, which will include compulsory core skills tests in numeracy, language and communications and a 4,000-word extended essay or project to test students' thinking skills.

Some members of the committee believe the exam names GCSE and A-level must be scrapped if the diploma is to retain any credibility. If they are not, they argue it would be possible for universities and employers to ignore other elements of the diploma.

Mr Blair's position on the diploma is unclear. In a speech last week to the Confederation of British Industry, one of the critics of the Tomlinson proposals, Mr Blair failed to mention it and insisted GCSEs and A-levels would be retained.

Whether a boycott of the other elements of the diploma would be successful could hinge on the reaction of universities and employers to them.