Tomlinson's antidote to regime that drives teenagers to distraction

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The Independent Online

A shake-up of the exam system became inevitable two years ago with the A-level marking fiasco that led to the upgrading of results for more than 1,000 sixth-formers and the resignation of Estelle Morris as Secretary of State for Education.

A shake-up of the exam system became inevitable two years ago with the A-level marking fiasco that led to the upgrading of results for more than 1,000 sixth-formers and the resignation of Estelle Morris as Secretary of State for Education.

The crisis came about because a new system of A-levels introduced in 2000 ­ where sixth-formers took a new exam, AS-level, at the end of the first year of the sixth form and then went on to full A-levels in the second ­ had been rushed in without being tried out.

Headteachers warned that British teenagers ­ with three successive years of external examinations, GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels, plus national curriculum tests at seven, 11 and 14 ­ were the most tested in the western world. Some of their pupils ­ even in the first year of the sixth form, traditionally a time for more creativity free from the pressure of external exams ­ were having to work a 70-hour week to keep up with the syllabus, they said.

The testing regime was costing schools £380m each year with the ironic result that some had less to spend on the books their pupils needed to study for the increased number of exams.

Something had to give and Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, was appointed by Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, to tell him what. Hence today's report, which will see GCSEs downgraded ­ with pupils marked by teachers in their own schools instead of sitting external tests. Pupils will not have to sit AS-levels in subjects they will pursue to A-level or the equivalent diploma when they are introduced later.Advanced Extension Awards ­ the "world-class tests'' for high flyers ­ will be scrapped and the type of questions in them introduced into A-levels or the equivalent diploma exams.In addition, A grades at A-level will be split into three (A, A* and A**) to allow universities to select the best candidates now that more than one in five scripts are awarded A grades.

Today's report will make it clear that youngsters will only get top marks in the new intermediate diploma to replace GCSEs if they can show they have studied a sufficient breadth of subjects, such as a foreign language. Mr Tomlinson's proposals also envisage a compulsory 4,000-word essay for "personal challenge'' to be undertaken by every youngster to show their thinking skills.

A-levels have been the "gold standard" of the education system since the early 1950s. They were introduced for potential university students at a time when only 6 per cent of school children went on to higher education. But as world economic competition increased and the workplace demanded more qualifications, they came under fire for not providing employers with recruits equipped for business. Also, they became a necessary qualification for more jobs. The number sitting the exam every year is 250,000 ­ four times as many as in the 1960s.

A faltering attempt was made to broaden their scope in the 1980s when a government report called for A-level students to study five subjects rather than three, to bring the UK in line with the breadth of study in Europe. But the report gathered dust as the Tory government tried to avoid a backlash from education traditionalists.

The next attempt was the botched one by Labour four years ago, which saw AS-levels introduced to improve breadth.

By comparison, GCSEs have had a less troubled past. They were introduced in the mid-1980s to replace GCE O-levels and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE). These two exams had run in parallel for years, with O-levels being taken by the more academic pupils; CSEs went largely unrecognised by many employers. Pressure for GCSE reform has grown as more students are staying in full-time education after they turn 16. The Government is encouraging this by offering £30-a-week to poorer students.

Much of the A-level and GCSE course content will be incorporated into the diploma, along with a compulsory basic skills test of numeracy, language and communication.The blueprint says the diploma will be awarded at three levels ­ pass, merit and distinction. Only those who can demonstrate breadth of study will be awarded a distinction.

Mr Tomlinson says it will take 10 years to implement ­ the lifetime of three parliaments, which puts pressure on politicians of all parties to reach a consensus.


Current system

First year, GCSEs: The most academic students take up to 12 external exams

Second year, AS-levels: in the first sixth-form year. Most pupils study for four - the three they will pursue to a full A-level and one other

Third year, A-levels

Under Tomlinson

GCSEs and A-levels will be scrapped

GCSEs will be replaced by an intermediate diploma

Many exams will be marked by the school's teachers, reducing pressure of end-of-term tests. Most course work will be scrapped

Pupils who are certain they are going to pursue their subject to A-level can skip AS-levels

There will be compulsory core tests in numeracy, language and communication

A compulsory 4000-word extended essay will also be introduced to help youngsters develop their thinking skills