Nick Pearce: At last, a sensible proposal for replacing A-levels

Despite the questions, the Tomlinson recipe is better than anything else on offer
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The Independent Online

The Tomlinson report has been a long time coming. Not that Mike Tomlinson's committee has been laggardly in its work, but it is now 14 years since the Institute for Public Policy Research published A British Baccalaureate, edited by a certain David Miliband. A widespread consensus has developed in the intervening years behind an integrated, single framework for 14-19 qualifications that offers greater flexibility, better opportunities for progression and the prospect of higher levels of achievement for the whole age group.

Tomlinson's report finally delivers on that consensus: a diploma system from Entry to Advanced Levels with a core of learning for all young people and specialised pathways and options. Strictly speaking, it is not a Bac system, but if implemented it will bring England much closer to the international mainstream of upper secondary and tertiary education. The narrowness of study in both academic and vocational routes in England is unusual, and we suffer from comparatively low staying-on rates. Although by no means a racing certainty, there is a good chance that Tomlinson's report could help to overcome both these problems.

The conservative defenders of the A-level "gold standard" have traditionally argued that academic qualifications are there to serve the highest achievers on route to university, but not the rest of the cohort. Tomlinson cuts through that argument by offering a diploma framework that is inclusive but also stretching at all levels.

History shows that qualification reform can be a powerful driver of improved educational achievement. The most successful such reform of the last 20 years was the creation of the GCSE in the 1980s, under a Conservative government. It had a profound impact. Staying-on rates in post-16 education rocketed.

But in about 1994 staying-on rates stopped rising, and they have plateaued ever since. Researchers don't really know why, but many argue that curriculum and qualifications reform could be the key that unlocks the door.

Previous efforts to broaden the curriculum for 16-19 year olds have come unstuck on the attempt to squeeze more learning out of the existing GCSE and A-level system. Curriculum 2000 offered important reform, but by fitting AS levels into an existing framework of exam for 16 and 18 year olds, the assessment burden increased substantially.

A key test for the implementation of Tomlinson will be whether these lessons are fully learned. The reform agenda is a long-term one and should be taken at a steady pace. It will also be crucial to draw on the professional subject knowledge of teachers; too often this gets distorted or lost as it is passed up to Ministers via quangos and their curriculum experts. Likewise, students have an important place in the reform process. Whole swathes of A-level students could have told the experts from a very early stage of Curriculum 2000 that their Key Skills studies were a joke.

There are other big issues. The report is light on analysis of the pathways through 14-19 learning taken by different groups in the cohort. There is little by way of reference to the labour-market activities and destinations of young people, despite the fact that in the Youth Cohort Study we have a very rich data source for this knowledge.

The reforms also pose challenges to the structure and accountability of education provision. If achievement of different levels of the diploma is progressively decoupled from age, what then is to become of league tables for the school performance of 16 year olds? Likewise, will the reforms be supported by any structural changes? Many in the Government would run a hundred miles from institutional upheaval, but others will argue the advanced diploma should be implemented through an expansion of sixth-form colleges.

These questions notwithstanding, the Tomlinson recipe is better than anything else on offer. Only a small proportion of the age group could study for the International Bac, since it is a highly demanding qualification and would not offer structured links for progression to other levels of education. And it is doubtful whether the quagmire of our current vocational qualifications can really be put behind us without rationalisation into a diploma framework of the kind that Tomlinson proposes.

Ultimately, the test will be political. Have we now reached a stage at which we can lay to rest the argument that only A-levels guarantee high standards? That we can have a system that is both excellent and inclusive? Tomlinson says we can, and it is high time we agreed.

The author is a director of the Institute of Public Policy Research and a former adviser to David Blunkett