Richard Garner: Biggest reform of exams in 50 years or a golden opportunity thrown away?

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The words were fine. Sadly, though, the package announced yesterday to revamp the exams system will not work.

The words were fine. Sadly, though, the package announced yesterday to revamp the exams system will not work.

"We cannot afford to let intellectual snobbery leave us with a second-class, second- best vocational education system," Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, told the Commons.

Then she announced she was rejecting the very proposal that would have laid to rest the academic and vocational divide. She delivered a firm "no" to the main recommendation of the Tomlinson inquiry into exam reform - that the GCSE and A-level system should be scrapped and an overarching diploma, including vocational qualifications, replace it.

Her decision, she said, was on the grounds that "there is no clear consensus amongst pupils, parents, employers or universities on whether and how it should be done".

Okay, employers were opposed to the plan, but Ms Kelly succeeded in almost uniting the education world as never before in condemning her for missing a golden opportunity for radical change.

New Labour's allies on the package were the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Institute of Directors (IoD) and Chris Woodhead, the former chief schools inspector who is a vehement opponent of the Tomlinson package.

Its foes are Sir Mike Tomlinson (the architect of the diploma), all the teachers' unions, independent schools, most universities - including Cambridge - most academics and David Bell, the present chief schools inspector, who has said he wanted ministers to abolish the two exams.

As Tim Collins, the Conservative education spokesman who revealed that his party would have backed the diploma, put it: "You have come not to praise the Tomlinson report, but to bury it."

The point opponents were all making was this: would it not be better to have vocational and academic qualifications under the umbrella of a single diploma if you want to create parity of esteem, rather than set up 14 new vocational diplomas - and run A-levels alongside them?

All may not be lost, though. At least there was a promise to review the situation in four years. Supporters of the diploma, with the Labour party hierarchy and Sir Mike, are pinning their hopes on winning the battle then.

Last night it was being suggested that the main reason Downing Street rejected the proposal was because Tony Blair did not want to go to the country in the forthcoming general election as the man who was going to abolish the "gold standard" of A-levels.

While the diploma proposal was the main element of the Tomlinson package, it was not the only decision taken yesterday - by any means.

Ms Kelly did give the go ahead for a new GCSE diploma that would be awarded to all students who achieved at least five A* to C-grade passes - as long as they included maths and English. The percentage of pupils achieving this diploma in a school would be measured in the exam league tables.

It was this that excited the CBI and the IoD and won the support of Sir Mike for tackling the scandal of 11 million adults failing to have the basic skills needed for employment.

It will, too, act as a heavy deterrent to those schools who have sought to put as many pupils as possible in for GNVQs (vocational qualifications) - deemed to be worth the equivalent of four GCSE passes - as a means of boosting their performance. Nine of the 10 schools on the Government's most improved list last year used this mechanism.

There was action, too, on the problems created for universities by candidates with three A-grade passes at A-level. In future, admissions tutors will be allowed to see their marks as well as their grades. The brightest pupils will also be asked to answer harder questions and a new 4,000-word extended essay is to be introduced at A-level to show pupils' thinking skills.

The package as a whole, though, was (to use the words of one teachers' leader) "rather like GCSEs and A-levels with knobs on", instead of the most radical reform of the examinations system for 50 years - as ministers had billed it.

Richard Garner is The Independent's Education Editor

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