Chalk Talk: Forget higher tuition fees – here's a really controversial idea

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The Independent Online

So what's the biggest education controversy of the moment? Is it Education Secretary Michael Gove's flagship policy of creating a network of "free" schools run by parents, teachers and religious groups – and the fears it might increase segregation of pupils by race and creed? Is it the Coalition Government's proposal to allow tuition fees to triple amid fears it will put off students from poorer homes from going to university?

The answer, I have to tell you, is no. It is the call by Isabel Nisbit, the outgoing chief executive of Ofqual, the exams watchdog, to do away with pens and papers and have all GCSEs and A-levels done online.

Never has the education world stirred itself so quickly to protest at the idea.

Within a few hours, more than 100 posts had appeared on The Independent's website about the proposals. Comments included: "Perhaps she will suggest all teaching is done using text messages – let's do away with the schools – think of the cost savings."

Another said: "And when the system goes down, intelligence flies out the window. At first glance I thought this was an early April fool's joke. On reading further, I became frightened."

There were some complimentary comments, but they were outweighed by howls of protest.

It seems to have caught a head of steam, then. When the story first broke, the Department for Education's instinct was not to get involved with the debate. Perhaps that can be seen as a wise move?

So where are they now? Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee for nearly a decade up until the last election, and Tim Boswell, who served as an education minister in the Major government, are probably the two MPs with the longest records of involvement with education policy.

Interesting to note, therefore, that they are the main movers behind setting up a Parliamentary Standing Commission to debate higher education – on which the great and the good (but no serving vice-chancellors) will sit. This is then going to be followed up by a Schools Standing Commission.

With so many changes planned for both sectors, the time is surely ripe for some rational debate and evidence-gathering about each of their futures.

Already there is a successful model for these two proposals in the Skills Standing Commission, which has played a significant part in shaping future policy in this area.

I wish both proposals well, then.

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