Bright youngsters with four or five A grade passes at A-level are in danger of dropping out of university because they cannot string their thoughts together to write an essay, according to the man heading a Government inquiry into exams reform.
Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector who is heading a review of education for 14- to 19-year-olds, said the prospect of writing an essay "almost brought them down". .
He said that A-level and GCSE papers all but "spoon-fed" them the answers by outlining what they should write about. As a result, their minds went blank when they were given essay topics by a university tutor. "They cannot cope with writing about one line at the top of the page," Mr Tomlinson said. He said one undergraduate, who had three grade As at A-level, dropped out of his mathematics course at an elite London university because he "couldn't cope" with being asked to write about his subject. "We can't have that happen," he said.
He said there was "genuine concern" among admissions tutors and undergraduates alike that youngsters across the achievement range - including those with four or five grade A passes at A-level - lacked the language and communication skills needed for tertiary education.
Mr Tomlinson, who was giving evidence to MPs on the Commons Select Committee for Education about his proposed reforms, said this lack of essay-writing skills underlined the need for a radical shake-up of the examination system.
Key elements of the changes he is proposing include insisting every sixth-former complete a compulsory thesis-style dissertation. This would form part of a new diploma which, under his suggested reform, would replace the existing GCSE and A-level system. In addition, youngsters would face a compulsory core skills course aimed at ensuring they had enough language, numeracy and communication skills to cope with the worlds of work and higher education.
Mr Tomlinson, who produced his interim report on examination reform last month, plans to submit his final findings to ministers by the end of the summer.