Richard Garner: A revolution in the classroom ­ if the politicians sign up

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The Independent Online

At one stage during a grilling on his report, Mike Tomlinson swayed back from the lectern and said: "There's absolutely nothing new in this."

The former chief schools inspector added: "There isn't anything in it that isn't being done somewhere in England."

At one level he is right. His much-vaunted extended essay - designed to show students' thinking skills - is being trialled by a group of schools in the south-west of England. His basic skills tests have been trialled before - and failed - but have never been given the kind of emphasis that would make schools sit up and ensure their pupils take them.

His comment "there's absolutely nothing new in this" could have been taken at another level, too. Mr Tomlinson's final report differs only in minutia from his interim report, published in January. Mr Tomlinson and his team have been engaged in consultations with all the "stakeholders" to try to win them over to their proposals.

That is why there is the emphasis on the basic skills tests. It became obvious the package would not win the support of employers' organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry without these being beefed up. They have been, and despite the words of caution expressed by its leaders yesterday,the CBI's representative on the Tomlinson committee, Ian Ferguson, said there was an "almost 100 per cent match" between what the CBI wanted and what Tomlinson would deliver.

Independent school heads represented another threat. There was a fear that many would declare UDI and opt to go down the International Baccalaureate route and thus devalue the diploma. Some might still.

On the other hand, Mike Tomlinson travelled to a wind-swept St Andrews in Scotland to talk to members of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents the leading boys' independent schools, to reassure them that A-levels and the advanced diploma which replaces them would be tougher.

The Advanced Extension Awards - the so-called "world-class tests" taken by academic high-flyers - would be scrapped and the kinds of probing questions asked in them would be incorporated into A-levels.

The A-grade would be split into three and, according to Mr Tomlinson, he would be happy if only 5 per cent of candidates were awarded the top A++ grade. As a result of his visit, the independent school heads fell in line.

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, has done his bit to try to secure all-party support for the package, too. The Liberal Democrats were never a problem - they almost claim to be more Tomlinson than Tomlinson.

The Conservative leader, Michael Howard, came out against the proposals yesterday, saying he would keep A-levels. However, some of the themes outlined by Mr Howard yesterday - such as distinguishing between the brightest candidates at A-level at A grade - are in line with Tomlinson's thinking.

So, then forward with the biggest shake-up to exams since the present system was devised more than 50 years ago, even if the architect of this revolution says: "There's absolutely nothing new in this." There may be nothing new but nobody so far has taken all these strands happening "somewhere in England" and made a coherent set of proposals for a secondary school examination system from them. Mike Tomlinson might just be the first person to do that given the support he needs from politicians and the education world.

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