This education white paper has squandered an excellent opportunity for reform

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The Independent Online

The Government has missed an excellent opportunity to set in train a fundamental and sorely needed reform of our national examination system. The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, outlined a white paper yesterday that did exactly what many had feared: it cherry-picked the recent Tomlinson report.

Back in 2002 the Government asked the former chief inspector of schools, Sir Mike Tomlinson, to look into how our examination system for 14- to 18-year-olds could be improved. Tomlinson's report, published in October last year, set out a package of radical proposals that, if implemented, would drag our archaic and inefficient examination system into the 21st century. The most striking suggestion was that A-levels and GCSEs should be replaced with a single, over-arching diploma to be awarded to pupils upon completing their studies.

Tomlinson's proposals are sensible for a number of reasons. They would enable students, constrained by a highly specialised A-level system, to study a broader range of subjects after the age of 16. This would help universities, currently struggling in the face of relentless grade inflation, to select the best pupils. By requiring all students to reach certain standards in maths and English before achieving the diploma, it would also benefit less able students. Tomlinson also recognised the importance of vocational studies. The overarching diploma would place equal value on both academic and vocational qualifications, thereby encouraging many non-academic pupils to stay in education longer than they otherwise would.

Tomlinson warned that it would be folly for the Government to implement only parts of his plan. It was to be all or nothing. But the Education Secretary has chosen to disregard this advice. Instead of replacing A-levels and GCSEs and introducing an overarching diploma, Ms Kelly proposed yesterday to impose a general diploma for students who score five GCSEs at grades A to C, including English and maths. This will simply overlay a new qualification on to an old one, confusing employers and students alike.

The Education Secretary, echoing Tomlinson, yesterday stressed the need to promote vocational education. Ms Kelly spoke passionately about the need to stamp out the snobbery with which such qualifications are still viewed. This is all very well, but she only proposes a partial implementation of Tomlinson's recommendations here, too. There is to be a new specialised diploma for vocational subjects, replacing the 3,500 separate qualifications that exist at the moment. But, by failing to bind vocational qualifications up with regular academic examinations in a single diploma, the Education Secretary has done nothing to challenge the two-tier approach.

Instead of the wholesale shake-up that was required, the Education Secretary has inaugurated another round of tinkering. Perhaps we should not be surprised at this lack of boldness, given that we are in the run-up to a general election. There are rumours that the Prime Minister himself rejected the proposals to scrap A-levels and GCSEs, for fear of scaring off parents and business leaders strongly in favour of retaining the old system.

Ms Kelly has promised to review the system again in 2008, leaving the door open to a possible implementation of the Tomlinson proposals at a later date. The trouble is that reform cannot wait. The deficiencies of our present system are well rehearsed. Far too many pupils are leaving school deficient in basic maths and literacy. At the other end of the spectrum, the most able pupils are not being stretched.

Britain no longer needs a mass examination of all 16-year-olds, since most stay on in education beyond this age. And we need a much more flexible and sophisticated examination system for students when they finally leave secondary school. With this white paper, the Government has simply deferred a major problem.