A blueprint for a modern exam system that should not be implemented too hastily

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Mike Tomlinson's proposals for reforming education for 14 to 19-year-olds had already been so comprehensively dripped into the public domain that when his report was finally published yesterday, its real implications may have been underestimated. In fact, Mr Tomlinson and his working group advocate the most radical overhaul of secondary education for more than 20 years and probably for half a century.

In one respect, this degree of change is as understandable as it is necessary. The first 'O' and 'A' levels were introduced in the Fifties, a time which is socially and in employment terms a world away from our own. This is why the Tory proposals, which argue for a return to old-fashioned 'O's and 'A's, set, marked and graded in almost the same way, while they may appeal to many, do not have a future.

The Tomlinson report, though, is hardly the first attempt of recent years to bring secondary education in England into the modern world. In this respect, the very need for a new scheme at all is evidence of how far earlier attempts have failed. After two decades of almost constant tinkering, the examination system is still producing far too many school-leavers who are not equipped for work: they cannot add or subtract, they cannot read or write adequately, they cannot use a computer. But that same exam system is also failing to stretch the most able and is not giving universities the information they need to select those who would benefit most from their courses.

The Tomlinson report addresses both these major defects and a great many more - including the disgracefully high dropout rate from secondary education. The four-stage diploma is a potentially good idea that gives all pupils the possibility of achievement, and employers and universities a qualification they should be able to trust. The "core" element of the diploma, which requires functional competence in maths, literacy and information skills, is a welcome and overdue addition to the school curriculum. It should be incorporated as a matter of urgency.

The effort to place vocational qualifications on a par with academic ones, without downgrading the latter, is also necessary, but hardly the first time such an effort has been made. How this will fare at a time when the Government insists that 50 per cent of pupils should go on to university is a separate question, but could send a confusing message.

The sharp reduction in course work is only sensible - Prince Harry is hardly the only pupil to have solicited help - as is the recommendation for additional grades and more demanding questions at 'A' level (or whatever replaces it). But it cannot be the Tories alone who ask why an A grade needs to be augmented by an A plus and an A double plus. The desperate reluctance to narrow the A grade smacks of the fictional Lake Wobegon where "every child is above average".

There are other aspects of the report which look superficially attractive, but need very careful consideration. Reducing the number of exams pupils sit is a necessary reform. There is no doubt that children are over-tested and that too much teaching is necessarily "to the exam". If most monitoring and testing is done "in-house", though, this could jeopardise the much prized objectivity that external examiners bring to the assessment. As their trade unions will be quick to appreciate, it is also likely to increase the burden on teachers.

The strength of the diploma concept is that it allows all pupils to progress at a pace that suits them. Having children of different ages, of different levels of maturity in the same classroom, however, is not an unalloyed good - as those who teach in schools where slower pupils are habitually kept down a year well know.

These are not fatal criticisms. They do, however, suggest that Mr Tomlinson might have looked more extensively at what works elsewhere in Britain and abroad before proposing his blueprint for change. The last thing anyone needs - teachers, parents or pupils - is more piecemeal change. We need a system, and qualifications, that will endure.