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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 July, 2003, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Q & A: Overhauling the exam system
A report by the former chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson, has called for a single diploma for 14 to 19 year olds, radically altering the old system of GCSEs and A-levels. What could this mean for students?

Will this mean the end of GCSEs and A-levels?

It is likely the exams - or something similar - will remain part of the diploma. But rather than remaining separate, they will count towards the final diploma.

Within the system, there will be entry, intermediate, foundation and advanced diplomas.

These would equate to the competence expected at 14, lower GCSE level (grades D to G), upper GCSE level (grades A* to C) and A-level.

The report refers to this approach as a "climbing frame" within a single system.

Whatever happens, the terms GCSE and A-level are likely to disappear if the reform goes through.

Will the emphasis on a final diploma keep the present focus on academic qualifications, and therefore fail to address the shortage of skills in the UK?

The structure of the diploma will demand that all students attain a workable level in "core skills", such as reading, writing, numeracy and computer use.

Students who want to specialise in arts subjects later on, for example, will still have to achieve competence in maths before they are awarded an advanced diploma.

The current system of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) will be incorporated into the diploma, just like GCSEs and A-levels, Mr Tomlinson added.

The testing of skills should go beyond "pencil and paper" exams, he said. For example, if someone wants to become a plumber, their on-the-job performance should be analysed.

Why should 14 to 19 year olds work within a single diploma system?

Mr Tomlinson's key word is "coherence". At present, around 50% of 16 year olds leave school without five GCSE grades A* to C.

This often entails a lack of number and word skills necessary for the working world. Establishing a new system will, Mr Tomlinson thinks, stop so many people falling by the wayside.

An ongoing diploma, it is hoped, will also allow an exact grading of students' skills levels.

Will the proposed reforms bring more breadth to the curriculum?

The system in England and Wales has been criticised for forcing students to specialise at age 16 by taking three or four A-level courses.

In 2000, the government introduced the AS-level, which allows a study of five subjects until the second year of sixth-form. After this stage, these usually narrow down to three.

It is not clear whether Mr Tomlinson's proposals would broaden the amount of subjects studied to A-level.

His emphasis is on extending the core skills to all who study, ensuring those who leave school are not impoverished by lacking literacy or numeracy.

Would this make the system here like the Baccalaureate studied abroad?

Under the Bac, six subjects are studied from 16 to 18 or 19. This includes two languages, a humanity, a science, maths and computing, and an arts course.

Mr Tomlinson has not said he wants six subjects to be taken until the end of the diploma he is proposing.

The Bac was designed in the 1960s to give students the chance to apply for university in other countries, by providing a single international standard.

The government has stated its preference for a Bac-style system, given its aim of getting more young people into university.

The upper end of the diploma may eventually gravitate towards the continental model.

For now, Mr Tomlinson seems more concerned with creating a ladder of achievement throughout the 14 to 19 age group.

Whatever happens, any changes are expected to take five to 10 years to implement.

Mr Tomlinson's working group will not even publish its final proposals until next year.

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