Leading article: A chance to revive the Tomlinson proposals

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The Independent Online

If the forecasts voiced so confidently over the weekend are borne out, this year's school leavers will produce a record crop of A-level passes. The success rate is likely to be an improvement on even last year's record 96 per cent, and almost one in four grades awarded will be an A.

This does not necessarily mean that the exams are easier than they used to be, although this will inevitably be the explanation that nostalgic professionals and pundits will reach for. The continued improvement probably reflects a whole range of factors, from more closely focused teaching and the two-stage A-level, to the trend for schools to enter only those pupils likely to succeed.

Changes in the content of courses may play a role, along with the still noticeable drift away from subjects, such as languages, deemed to be "hard". But it would be unfair to judge either pupils or schools on curriculums that no longer exist. Teachers teach to today's exams, pupils answer the questions they are set, and - as the results promise to show - both have done well.

So many passes and so many A grades, however, create new problems. The task faced by the universities in selecting their students will be harder than ever. And their dilemma could be compounded this year by the number of would-be students forfeiting a "gap" year in order to avoid the new top-up fees. We can expect the usual outcry from school-leavers with only As at A-level who nonetheless face rejection from the university of their choice.

But there is also the broader question of morale. Any increase in the pass rate and the proportion of A grades is bound to trigger a new furore about how A-levels have been "dumbed down". Justly or not, the faith of universities and employers in the value of A-levels will be further eroded.

An increasing number of schools, at their own discretion or under pressure from parents, are choosing to enter their pupils for the International Baccalaureate instead, on the grounds that it presents a greater challenge to the most able children and offers a better gauge of their ability. If this trend continues, the result could be the effective downgrading of A-levels and two classes of school-leaver.

For all these reasons, the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, needs to take another look at the proposals of the Tomlinson report that she rejected earlier this year. With the election out of the way, she should find it easier to contest the charge that Tomlinson would remove A-levels as the "gold standard" of education. A wider-ranging diploma that would include a tougher A-level curriculum for the most academically able would address many of the complaints that will be raised if this year's A-level results are as good as expected.

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