Richard Garner: Why Government's approach to difficulties is flawed

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The shortcomings of the education service were graphically underlined by two separate events in the past 24 hours. First, the widely respected former schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson yesterday delivered a scathing attack on A-levels - claiming that they were "killing scholarship" in virtually every subject studied in the sixth-form. Then today the National Audit Office reveals there are still more than a million children taught in poorly performing schools.

Both events point to the urgency with which the Government must tackle the underlying problems of the service. To their credit, ministers have published White Papers to tackle both the issues raised. The trouble is they have produced a mixed bag.

The White Paper on exam reform does talk about making A-levels more difficult - with optional harder questions to be piloted next year - and the introduction of extended essay projects to develop the thinking skills of all candidates.

The trouble is it refuses to endorse the main recommendation of Sir Mike's inquiry into exam reform - that the existing GCSE and A-level system be scrapped in favour of an overarching diploma covering both academic and vocational qualifications.

That would be the spur that would motivate school drop-outs at 16 into staying on and studying something worthwhile.

On poorly performing schools, there is a lot in the controversial White Paper on education, published by the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly last autumn, that would address the problems. Specifically, it would cut the time a school has to show improvements after failing an inspection to just one year. At that stage, if no improvements were evident, it would be considered for closure - or come under the wing of an existing successful school or become an academy.

The trouble is this modest and uncontroversial reform is in danger of being lost because of the furore over the whole package - with Labour backbenchers claiming giving schools more control over admissions will lead to more selection.

The Government is in its present mess because it has fudged both issues. It says it acknowledges the case for boosting vocational education - but by introducing specialist vocational diplomas it will ensure the academic/ vocational divide continues. Its attempt to portray its White Paper reforms as giving more autonomy to schools and more choice for parents at the same time are contradictory.

Tony Blair fond of saying that New Labour is best when it is at its boldest. There is no evidence of boldness in these two White Papers.