Shake-up of exams system to be delayed

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The Independent Online

Radical reforms of the school examinations system, announced today, will be delayed until the end of the decade to avoid a repeat of last summer's A-level grading fiasco.

Mike Tomlinson, the chief inspector of schools who is running an inquiry for the Government into education for pupils aged 14 to 19, today outlined proposals to introduce a broader range of studies for sixth-formers.

A–levels and GCSEs could be replaced by a new "diploma" that will be at least as demanding but would involve fewer written exams, the man charged with devising reform of the secondary school curriculum said today.

Young people would start the new courses – which would have levels of difficulty equivalent to the existing qualifications – at 14 and be encouraged to stay on at school until 18 or 19, not leave at 16, said a first report from the working party chaired by former chief schools inspector Mike Tomlinson.

To get a diploma – the English version of the Baccalaureate taken across Europe – pupils would have to acquire English, maths and computer skills now needed in most walks of life plus a mixture of academic, job related and optional modules.

Mr Tomlinson's group was asked to come up with possible alternatives to A–levels and GCSEs, following last year's A–level grades debacle.

He is now inviting comments on his initial proposals but said reform was needed because too many young people in England were leaving school at 16 having achieved at a low level and felt they were failures.

Even six formers were completing their A–level courses and going on to university without the literacy and numeracy skills that were essential in later life, his report said.

Change was also necessary because many young people felt GCSE and A–level courses were all about passing exams and not about gaining a wide and deep understanding of the subjects they were studying.

The report said: "There is too much emphasis on traditional written examinations, sometimes at the expense of wider learning, skills and personal development."

Stressing that he believed A–levels and GCSEs should be held in "high esteem" until such time as they were replaced, Mr Tomlinson said: "Whatever their ability and preferred path in further learning or employment, all young people follow courses and qualifications that they find demanding and stretching.

"They should have access to learning which asks the best of them and which in turn delivers the skills and knowledge they need for 21st century learning, employment and adult life.

"We do not ask enough of far too many of our young people and we do not yet have the range of courses and qualifications that ensure that their achievements are recognised and valued in the outside world."

The diploma could be made available on four levels, equivalent to the current entry level certificate through to A–levels and, beyond that, the existing Advanced Extension Award now taken by the highest–flying sixth formers.

The diploma cold also include Baccalaureate–style features such as requiring students to write a dissertation or make an oral presentation linking various areas they have studied.

It could also reflect extra curricula activities such as voluntary work, sport and music.

But the signs were that Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, will adopt a "softly, softly" approach to its introduction.

Ministers are aware that last year's A-level grading fiasco was mainly caused by introducing the new "Curriculum 2000" - which brought in new-style AS-levels - too quickly and without a proper piloting of the system. Students now in secondary schools will continue to take GCSEs and A-levels.

A source at the Department for Education and Skills said: "This is long-term reform. The issues involved are some of the most profound of those affecting education. Any reforms will be thoroughly tested to ensure they are robust."

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said yesterday: "The last thing young people and teachers need is imposed, under-financed and rushed change. Mike Tomlinson is capable of achieving consensus on his proposals if he has the financial backing of Government and the understanding you cannot have instant change."

Today's progress report will go out to consultation for the next three months. The final inquiry report will be published next summer.