Thousands of pupils 'struggling to cope'

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Former chief schools inspector Mike Tomlinson last night launched a robust defence of radical plans for a shake-up of secondary school exams which will see GCSEs and A-levels replaced with a new diploma.

Mr Tomlinson, who is heading a government inquiry into education for 14 to 19 year-olds, warned that thousands of youngsters were hitting a "brick wall'' under the present system. They were struggling to cope with three consecutive years of external exams ­ GCSEs, AS and A-levels ­ or leaving school with no qualifications at all.

His report, due out on Tuesday but whose details were exclusively revealed in yesterday's Independent, would see the existing GCSE and A-level system replaced with a four-tier diploma.

Mr Tomlinson said last night: "We can't continue with a system where so many young people are disengaged. So many are hitting a brick wall and we cannot continue to burden our students.''

Under his committee's proposals, those studying for the advanced diploma will have to do a compulsory dissertation allowing university admission staff to see how well they have developed their thinking skills. It is also designed to help identify the brighter students. Universities have complained they cannot do this at present because too many obtain "A" grades at A-level.

Those taking the advanced diploma will be allowed to skip earlier exams. Pupils will also be able to sit exams when they are ready ­ with the brightest moving on to study for university degrees at 16 and those struggling to obtain an intermediate diploma (the equivalent of GCSE) allowed to stay on at school until 17 or 18 rather than quit at 16 with no qualifications.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said of the proposals: "When they are introduced, it will be a revolution. We're in the last chance saloon for reform of the 14-to-19 exam system. If we don't get it right as a result of the Tomlinson report, then I think it will be a disaster for the future of the exam system.''

Under the proposals, thousands of secondary schoolchildren could start learning modern languages again.

Children will be required to learn a language as part of the compulsory element of courses studied for the diploma.

Mr Tomlinson's committee is also working on proposals that would see the inclusion of a compulsory languages element in vocational subjects, such as leisure and tourism and business studies.

The Government in September controversially allowed schoolchildren to ditch languages at the age of 14. The move provoked an outcry from language teachers and was criticised by the UK's ambassadors to France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

The committee's proposals will form part of a drive to resurrect languages in the curriculum and avoid the UK being dubbed the language "dunce" of Europe.

The minister for school standards, David Miliband, is known to be a keen supporter of the diploma approach, but the shake-up in the system is likely to take 10 years to complete.

The National Union of Teachers' general secretary, Doug McAvoy, welcomed the report. "The proposals have much to commend them. But there's much that is good in the existing exam system that must not be lost. The diploma should not be rushed but should be brought in over a period."