Tomlinson: 'A-levels are killing scholarship in every subject'

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Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, has launched his most scathing attack on the standard of A-levels.

Sir Mike, the adviser who headed a government inquiry into the reform of exams for 14- to 19-year-olds two years ago, said the system was "killing scholarship in almost every subject" studied in school sixth-forms.

Young people with four grade- A passes at A-level "don't have the skills necessary to take a title and write about it", he said in a speech to university leaders at the London Assembly yesterday.

His comments echo complaints made by senior university lecturers, who claim that many students with top grade A-level passes arrive at university in need of remedial classes in basic skills such as reading and writing. They had been coached to answer the questions they would face but had little knowledge or understanding to develop an argument.

Sir Mike singled out one reform in the Government's controversial schools White Paper that could improve the standard of sixth-form study. Schools would be able to set students higher education modules to work on in the sixth-form - thus stretching the brightest and encouraging them to study for university degrees before they leave school. At present, that is banned by law. Sir Mike insisted that exam reform would only work when educationalists stopped talking about academic and vocational qualifications as if they belonged to two different worlds.

The key recommendation of Sir Mike's inquiry - that the A-level and GCSE system should be scrapped and replaced by a diploma covering academic and vocational qualifications - was, however, scrapped by ministers.

Instead, the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, is developing specialist diplomas to run alongside A-levels in subjects such as engineering and health care. The Government is also to pilot optional more difficult A-level questions from next year.