A shake-up of England's exam system could see GCSEs and A-levels replaced by a diploma according to a government report issued on Tuesday.
The review headed by the former chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson has suggested that the new exam should have four levels - advanced, intermediate, foundation and entry.
Vocational qualifications and extra-curricular activities would also go towards the diploma.
Brighter students could be allowed to take exams earlier which might allow them to begin university degrees at the age of 16.
What do you think of the proposals? Will they lead to a more flexible education system suitable for the 21st Century?
This debate is now closed. Read your comments below.
The following comments reflect the balance of views we have received:
I think it is time to have a changes in education if it means our children of the future will get more out of it.
Rukea Khan, Stratford, England
The key to the success of any reforms lies in what universities, colleges and employers require. It is not up to the Government to tell them what they need it is the other way round. My sense is that this is all about ensuring that all are granted some form of qualification. But in striving for inclusion the system will become less demanding for those of average and high ability so the reforms are in danger of institutionalising lower standards for essentially political reasons. I hope that I am proved wrong.
Patrick Watson, London
I think it's not a very good idea. It will bring a chaos in to the system which already lost control. Why UK does not adopt Russian education system? It's perfect! Education should be mandatory and include the basic knowledge of everything (math, physics, chemistry, literature, biology, law, language, etc.)
We need a system that accurately measures a student's ability and potential, including rewarding hard work and attention. However, there ought to be a provision for students to attempt to upgrade/improve their level later on. Some of us "peak" later.
Phil Walton, Gurgaon India
This just shows that in one area at least we are better than our competitors. That is in the area of meddling in education and devaluing everything our children do. Oh, and if as so many correspondents have already said, our children, whilst clutching a certificate, can't read, do maths, or construct a sentence, whose fault is that and will a diploma provide a cure?
David May, Glossop England
I feel it would be a good idea as long as there was the teachers and support for children to do what they want and not what there is the numbers for. I also feel this will make gaining entry to uni easier although may cause over crowding.
Gemma, Nuneaton, Warwickshire
Their has to be a more broad education to our children. The standard of general knowledge of school leavers is poor. They think Donatello is a Ninja Turtle! Major problem which does not seem to be addressed is the poor standard of teaching staff and their mediocrity ethos.
John Karran, Merseyside, UK
By changing the educational system every few years only places more pressure on school budgets as they try to buy new textbooks, which cover the material. As a student it is extremely confusing when the textbooks and revision material have information, which may or may not be part oaf the syllabus.
Suhail Mahmood, London, UK
Weren't 'O' and 'A' levels introduced to replace the school cert which was basically the same as this new diploma. The reasoning behind the 'O' and 'A' levels was that it allowed children who were good at, say, sciences but not languages, to get results that reflected this.
As a university student having just done A levels and finding myself in a group who have had different levels of teaching I think that a reform is well overdue. I feel like this year is almost a repeat of the A level year, and in some respects my AS year whereas some have never covered this work at all, and its basic French grammar.
Rachel Schofield, Bristol
The current GCSE and A Level system is absurdly caught up in league tables and results. What we need is a more rounded, environmental and moral education where children use their common sense and imagination to achieve a more self satisfying approach to life. Also, raising academic standards by lowering pass rates and standard of work is a government driven ideology in order to ally themselves with industry and voting parents. Isn't it about time we woke up to the transparent promises of each government and move towards a more independent directive over education?
Wendy parry, East Sussex
When I was in school many years ago - the most dreaded bit was taking the exams, it was so stressful, and even though competition helps some people it was detrimental to my education. If I could've gone at my own pace, I might still be in school now but at least I would've done better. I like the idea of not having exams set for a certain age mark, letting pupils take control of their lives and choosing when to take the exams is the way forward.
David Hilton, Hudds, UK
I think that the exam system today is far too easy and the students should try sitting the old A level exams of 20 years ago to see how many would get passes. Our universities will be over crowded and we already struggle to finance these people. I suggest we go backwards to make exams as difficult as they used to be and to ban calculators completely. Children today cannot even do the easiest of sums
Ann Tompkinson, Wrexham
I worked in a school last year and had the opportunity to do some classroom assistant work, helping some 1st year GCSE students towards their mock-GCSEs. It shocked me at how much emphasis was and is placed on getting through the "syllabus" and teaching pupils how to sit and pass exams, rather than teaching pupils a subject. I hope that the reforms suggested do actually take into account the fact that many schools are currently not able to teach subjects but actually have to teach exam techniques. There should be a GCSE in how to pass your exams...
Jeni, Manchester, UK
As an employer I now regard a degree much as I regarded an A-level fifteen years ago. There are now so many graduates that you can't pick out the good from the mediocre. Otherwise nothing has changed. Applicants are certainly no more able. The whole thing needs to be restructured on a common scale so that the true level of student's abilities are evident.
Kelly Mouser, UK
At what point did it become politically incorrect to fail? The government seem intent on reengineering the exam system every chance they get to prevent failure when they should devote more attention to teaching to improve pass rates. Year after year the government tries out a new style or format of exam on students who are the guinea pigs for their ludicrous ideas. There was a uniform standard with O and A-levels, now no one is really sure what each qualification signifies in the ability of the holder.
David M, Portsmouth
As a teacher I would welcome anything that removes the burden of coursework (which proves little about learning and plenty about spoonfeeding) and that re-introduces academic rigour for able students. The current AS/A2 does little to prepare university entrants and universities are wasting time on assisting pupils to 'catch up'. My only concern is that in my area (Music) it is yet another change at a time when we are still getting used to the recent enforced changes to the GCSE syllabus - so please can we get it right and then allow it to be fully implemented and evaluated before we move on to another change!
Iain Smith, Dover, Kent. UK
My Year-Ten 14 year-old son simply shrugged his shoulders with resignation at the prospect of another change. New Labour is simply incapable of not meddling. Meanwhile, I think it would be unwise to allow 16 year-olds into university; they are too young and would lack the maturity and experience to gain the maximum benefit it.
Chris Klein, Chandlers Ford, UK
This is change for the sake of change - the present system hasn't been operating long enough to determine if it is broken!
Tony Shield, Chorley, England
I am a lecturer in one of the large, 'new' universities. I would welcome any initiative which might ensure that the students we admit have even basic numeracy & literacy skills, plus are able to think critically. My own observation is that they seem to have been coached to pass specific examinations but are unable to communicate, conduct basic, original research or think.
Keep the Government out of any decisions on changing education. Leave it to those who know what they are talking about.
Sally, Bromham, England
The Government should stop messing with kids' education. Continuing uncertainty over the future of A levels makes things worse. GCSEs and A levels have been, and still are, a fine institution. The problem (only encountered in the last few years) is in the marking, where "too many kids do too well". Sort out the markers and leave A levels alone.
Dai Takekawa, London
There was nothing wrong with the system of GCSEs and A-levels that was in place when I finished school in 2000. I was pleased to be able to specialize in the subjects that I truly enjoyed and believe that the introduction of a broader IB based system will not only require a dumbing down of the subjects studied at school, but will also require universities to lower the standards of the courses that they offer to account for this. All in all, the changes proposed will lead to a lowering of education standards at a rate even greater than is occurring currently.
Are you mad!!! Make A-Levels harder, as an A-Level student what you are encouraging is more students to leave at 16!!! So they better have good qualifications, because only the rich and extremely bright are going to get into university!!! Sounds like a Conservative policy to me, not an idea for a party that wants to get over 50% of school leavers into higher education.
Neal Douglas, Peterborough, UK
I welcome an overhaul to the system to undo some of the mistakes of Curriculum 2000 and to promote vocational qualifications, but I have concerns about how the Government intends to achieve this. Sending 50% of school leavers to university is no way to promote vocational qualifications such as GNVQs/VCEs etc which, contrary to some reports, are well understood and respected by industry employers.
Lucy Taylor, Oxford, UK
I think that the structure of GCSEs is better for those students who have problems with exam nerves, but they are being dumbed down. My friend has just completed her CELTA training and I found out from her that foreign students are taught better written and oral English than our own. Most British students have difficulty with basic grammar, maths and written skills (NOT how to produce an essay on a PC). Schools seem increasingly blind to the fact that most companies do not use the technology found in schools.
I would be worried about fewer exams and more internal marking. Not only does this increase the workload, it also brings standardisation issues to the front in a way that exams do not. Should teachers assess their own students' work, or would it be better that someone who doesn't have a relationship with that student to do the marking?
Mary Knight, London, England
Further devaluing. Rather than going "forward", let's bring back O-Levels, A-Levels (at the standard they were 20 years ago), and then we'll see how far things have really slipped.
At last, someone seems to be addressing the need for better vocational training and education which prepares people for life not just exams. It is refreshing to read that emphasis will be placed on children learning to think not just learning parrot-fashion.
I have to say that the education I received at Secondary School level left me woefully un-prepared to enter today's world of work and adult life! I am glad that something is being done at last to address the problems inherent within the system, which is currently leaving clever, able students with a lack of understanding of the way things work in the real world, and leaving less able students with no real assets to enable them to deal with the vigour's of everyday life
Jo Corson, Glasgow, Scotland
Let me get this right: with the new system, a bright student should be able to complete the whole lot by the age of 16. And we're expected to believe this isn't another dumbing-down exercise?
Adam, London, UK
They made the Maths A-levels harder last time - and many good students couldn't cope. The course had to be rewritten. If they don't want to repeat the same mistake, there needs to be something for students who could do further study beyond GCSE, but couldn't cope with these super A-levels.
H Macpherson, Milton Keynes, UK
Well, whatever happens - they'll only 'shake' it up again in another couple of years' time anyway....
Just a couple of points: this new system is supposed to relieve stress on the students but how is four years with regularly spaced exams really different from the current system where three sets of exams are taken over three years? Also, the chance to take qualifications according to ability rather than age is all well and good but the social problems of teaching a variety of ages of children together should be considered. Also, will pupils be able to stay motivated if they know that younger children are at the same level as they are?
They only reason why an overhaul is necessary is because of the continual interference in the education system since Tony Blair became PM. There was nothing wrong with it as noted by other posts in this forum where it was known as an achievement to have gained that O/A level qualification, but with the yearly erosion of the pass mark required they have made a mockery of the whole education system. I say return it to the standards of education prior to his government took office and bring back sports education as we all know an active body makes an active mind !
Stephen Lynn, Kilmacolm, UK
Another overhaul? Revolutions cause a short period of chaos before settling down into a system that is usually at least as bad as the old one. A new system is hardly what is needed for a few years, until the next new system.
Matthew Whiting, Surbiton
As a society we need to learn how to tell someone they have failed. The present exam system is fine, but it needs stricter marking so that employers can discriminate effectively between students. This new idea will only create further confusion and give more scope to pass those who should fail.
I think the emphasis on skills required for business and everyday adult life is long overdue. I can't help feeling concerned though at the number of pupils having their education experimented with each time the Government decides to overhaul the system.
Kathryn, Flintshire, UK
These changes will do nothing to improve the situation and are another perfect example of spin-over-substance. In 10 years time, the debate will be the same - except everyone will be crying out for the old system again.
I am a current A-Level student and I want to know what will happen to the qualifications I am working for now. Will they be devalued in the future leaving me with less chance of finding work simply because I missed out on the new scheme?
Michael Smith, South Shields, UK
Good bye gold standard, hello mediocrity. This will just enable the government to blur any distinctions between bright and less-bright, academic and vocational, driven and not-driven.
Edward, Cambridge, UK
I came to England to do an MA in Maths four years ago and was amazed at the way students were being examined during high school years. I think the system needs to change but I agree with some other comments that the Government should have adopted the International Baccalaureate altogether. Consistency on an international level should be the rule to avoid limiting students going abroad or coming in. Besides adopting the Baccalaureate would prevent politicians from fiddling with the system so much.
Roberto Botero, London, England
It's a bit late for all those who are now 'failed'.
I'd like to thank the government for further devaluing the AS level. I was in the first year of students forced to take the new AS levels. It meant our years in the sixth form were a constant stream of exams. And now it looks like most schools will drop them, the qualifications we worked so hard for won't even be worth the paper they're written on.
Claire Robinson, Beverley, UK
For too long we have been trying to reward more and more school leavers with an exam certificate - all this does is make the exam worth less every year. Hopefully this change will return some value to exam grades.
Richard, Southampton, England
To point out the blindingly obvious, grading the new diploma on seven scales instead of the five that A-Levels are currently graded at, just means that in a set time down the line exactly the same problem will occur. Would it not be more sensible to assume that the variation in the quality of pupils between each year is minimal, and set the grades so that the highest grade means that you are in the top 5%, then next grade in the top 15% etc. That way employers and universities know where they stand when taking on new students.
Jonathan Fuller, England
The absurdity of the current A-level system is that one can avoid learning the core subjects such as maths, English, history and a foreign language. Far too many students leave school with three good A-levels, yet not knowing history and literature of their own country, and unable to construct a coherent sentence.
The current system is flawed only because the Government keeps dumbing down the exams to fix a good result. The suggested new system is rubbish with children sitting exams when they feel ready and given diplomas which will not be recognised by employees. Leave the current system alone and stop the interference from the Government.
Paul Siggery, Slough Berkshire
There are too many qualifications around, especially post-GCSE. All they seem to be there for is to allow more people, regardless of actual intellectual ability, to get into university.
Lee, Hebburn, England
The reason for this is simple, one diploma for all. Four levels of pass. The dummies get a pass at the lowest level up to a high level for the people who work and do well. It is known as pass one pass all. As long as everyone is aware as to the real value of the 'diploma' is seems a sensible way to go, and much simpler than the present hotchpotch.
I welcome the move to change the existing system, but ask the question why re-invent the wheel? I took the International Baccalaureate in the UK 30 years ago and found myself far from at a disadvantage compared to A-level candidates when I got to University. Inventing a new qualification is not going to improve matters.
Dr Dewi Williams, Poole, UK
Here we go again. I agree with other comments on this page; let's give the previous reforms time to bed in. Otherwise, as is currently becoming the case, employers will discount academic qualifications as they won't know what to baseline against what!
Tim, Bristol, UK
I think that it was about time the UK changed their system. The current system of foundation, intermediate and higher in GCSEs could downgrade people from the potential that they possess. Students in the foundation tier would be laid back and the new system would force them to work harder in order to compete with the others. So I think that the education reforms are necessary in order to get the best out of a student.
Rahul Shah, London, UK
Don't A-levels already have a seven-point scale of grades? (A-U)
Mark Simpson, Cambridge, UK
Constantly chopping and changing the examination system for school leavers helps no-one and just creates confusion for all concerned. I think the best idea is to go back to old style 'O' and 'A' level exams: for the less academic students, the emphasis should be on credible vocational qualifications, relevant to the workplace.
Marie Dowling, York, UK
The only thing this shake-up will achieve is to keep government pen pushers in jobs for a few more years attending meetings and drafting policies, which is no doubt the real aim. Why else would you overhaul the entire system instead of fixing specific problems with the current system?
Stuart W, UK
This sounds like a long overdue change. Students are seldom pushed to their maximum potential and need a harder challenge. Let the best students excel and achieve more.
David Wandless, Newcastle, England
If they get rid of GCSEs and A levels, what are people going to study for at evening classes/part-time? You're hardly likely to want to study for four years plus. Even if they kept GCSEs/A Levels for part time courses, they would lose value as they wouldn't be equivalent of modern exams.
Ali, Bristol, England
How can the introduction of diplomas with a number of different routes through them simplify the system? Especially as these diplomas will include the existing qualification framework. I do welcome the proposal to improve numeracy and literacy as this is absolutely essential. It is a sad fact that this even has to be considered at the start of the 21st century.
Dave Harrison, Hartlepool, UK
I couldn't see what was wrong with the original O-level system, personally, but this seems like a good idea. I particularly like the idea of students being able to take the exams when they are ready, rather than being tied to a specific age group. Having taught at GCSE level, I thought the GCSE syllabus and exams were too simplistic, particularly in the case of language subjects.
Yvonne Aburrow, Bristol, UK
How can this system be any better when it fails to address the reasons for the slump in standards, namely the constant meddling by politicians and education experts who've never been near a classroom, the creation of a culture where everything has to be measurable and target driven, the erosion of respect for the teaching profession and the breakdown of parental responsibility and discipline in the home. Without addressing these problems all you're doing is disrupting the education of thousands and wasting a huge amount of money to just call a mess by another name.
David Priddy, Slough, UK
Typical. As soon as I'm about to take my A-levels the government is suggesting scrapping them. Personally I have found the narrower focus of A-levels on just a few specific subjects much more worthwhile. It allows you to specialise in areas you find most interesting and gain a greater depth of knowledge on these areas. These new diplomas bring to mind a familiar phrase: "Jack of all trades, master of none". And they still don't help in any way those wishing to study at a more vocational level.
Will Hopkins, Halifax, England
The United States is currently seeking to scrap the diploma system because it does not work and has led to a massive decline in standards. They are currently looking to move towards an exam based system like our own. Why on earth should the government want to change when all research on the US system show that colleges, universities and employers find them totally inadequate and view them as nothing more than attendance certificates?
Dave Osborne, Worcestershire, UK
As a teacher of GCSE and A-level Business Studies, I am fed up with constant change to the system every few years. However, I agree that there is a need for change as the AS-level especially is too easy for the most able and is a step too far for some others who have been clearly pushed into further academic studies by parents determined that they should move onto university. My subject especially, has seen a dumbing down in the mathematical element of the course and it would be refreshing to see a modified and more challenging qualification more appropriate to the needs of pupils and employers. Please though do not rush into this as it is us teachers that have to pick up the pieces! Let's get this right and then leave things alone.
Darren Nichols, Norwich, UK
Having got the top first at Oxford in my subject, from a state school background, I am uniquely well placed to comment on the system for high achievers. Despite having taken O-levels early, I do not believe that youngsters would gain from going to university sooner. Rather, the system should concentrate on preparing the brightest pupils to go to the best universities, and allow the best universities to raise the standard of their degrees.
Dave Handley, UK
The government just doesn't know what to do next with the education of young people in this country. I still cannot see what was wrong with the O and A level system of 30 years ago. We all knew where we were heading as far as exams were concerned, and when we came out of school with A grades, we knew we had achieved an educational standard which really had value. Standards have progressively declined and students are being cheated. I work in recruitment and we pay little heed to the current A and A* grades. When it comes to the basic verbal and numerical tests we give people, we know that it is invariably the older candidates who will do best.
The current system is failing and change is essential. However this is the last chance this government has to get it right, after years of errors and false starts. I strongly suggest they keep their political ambition out of the equation and heed the advice of a combination of professional educators and representatives of industry who are in the end, one of the main customers of the education system.
In an increasingly globalised world, it is important that national qualifications become as transferable on the international market as possible. I think that the idea is fantastic as it would create an educational qualification similar to the international baccalaureate that employers and educational institutions both nationally and internationally would understand. Furthermore, I believe that we in Scotland should be following a similar route, in creating a flexible, recognisable and open school qualification.
Simon Flinn, Edinburgh
I am a first year law student at one of the top universities for Law, and took the first round of AS/A2 levels in June 2002. Having been at university for one and a half terms, I am astounded at the number of students who have English as a first language, have been educated in English schools, often selective grammar schools, and yet STILL cannot write a coherent, well structured essay. I won't even begin on their maths skills. If, and I emphasis the if, these new reforms manage to teach students how to write, how to manage their own finances, and give them the chance to learn what interests them, then they might have more of a chance of success.
As one who has passed through the whole system, I know there's a huge need for reform, and these are the first plans I've seen that have suggested a credible way forward. The plans also seem to take in aspects of the European Baccalaureate system, which is necessary if the education system here is to stand any credibility for those trying to work in Europe. One question though: how easy is it going to be for those outside the education system (i.e. adults) to gain qualifications they missed out on first time round?
Having studied the recommendations proposed by Mike Tomlinson, I think that his plans for 14-19 education should be welcomed. The current educational system is failing too many pupils in schools by not providing educational routes that fully meet their needs, and failing employers by not generating an effective and skilled workforce. This new 'pupil-centred' approach to 14-19 education means that pupils can select their own educational pathway, whether that be vocational or academic, so that it will aid them to reach their own individual goals - employment or entry to higher education. These are indeed exciting times for all involved within 14-19 education.
Simon Bicknell, Liverpool, England
I am concerned that the value of the new diploma will be difficult to interpret by parents, pupils, and employers. With O-level and A-level qualifications, everyone knew that the qualification represented a certain attainment in a specific subject. I do not understand the political imperative to fiddle with historical systems.
Mark, Paignton, UK
The government has made the astute observation that our examination system is lacking, and that we need a system more like the International Baccalaureate. They seem to have missed the obvious conclusion, though, that we should simply adopt the International Baccalaureate. It is a well proven system with international credibility, and it is well insulated from political interference from any single member country.
Hugh Parker, York, England
I've no specific objection to the proposals, they seem ok really. However, I worry about the cost and also about whether the government will be able to resist the temptation to manipulate the structure or the results to escape political ramifications if it fails. After all, they've tried to manipulate exam results before and have a wide history of spin.
Phillip Holley, Cambs
I just completed my A2s last year. Throughout my A-level life I was constantly tested. We never had a break. Anything to reduce the stress should be welcomed but doesn't this show that AS and A2 levels were flawed from the start.
David C, Leicester, UK
I've been teaching A-levels for 16 years, and have been an A-level examiner for 11 years. In that time, I have seen students become increasingly overburdened in an educational system which seems to be every politician's favourite toy. If this new proposal means fewer but more rigorous exams, taken at regular intervals over a 4 year period, with a significant reduction in the amount of coursework to which well-meaning parents currently contribute, then it will be a good thing. But could we please have a guarantee that there will then be a 15 year period of 'no change, no tinkering', and that we will move from the ridiculous system we have of the academic year being tied to the agricultural year, leaving students to take exams during the hottest months of the year in poorly-ventilated, poorly maintained facilities.
Val, Petersfield, UK
I'm a current A-level student and after a summer of GCSE's and an upcoming two summers of A-levels I don't see why the whole system should all change. There's nothing wrong with taking exams, some of them are even enjoyable and with coursework there's a chance for everyone to pass. The A-level system works and the majority of the country respects it and understand how much work is put in to get decent grades. A-Levels are easy and don't stretch you is a myth.
I don't think that the present system has been given enough chance. It has only been running for not even three years! Teachers, exam boards and students are still getting used to this new system - how can anyone judge it yet? The government proposed this present structure and are content to get rid of it straightaway - why? I'm afraid these new proposals look to me like students are going to be classified into different groups - clever or stupid at the age of 16. Is this a repeat of the 11+ system? Also, I don't think that pupils should be allowed to start a degree so early.
Claire, Nottingham, UK
Changes in the UK exam system are necessary as the focus of further and higher education is moving to a more vocational and mixed subject qualification model. It is right the government is looking at this problem now so changes can be made over a period of time and not rushed through as a last-minute bodge.
Although it will take a while to implement these changes, I am quite sure they will be very welcome. Mike Tomlinson has not exactly held back in criticism, which can only be good thing. It is also good that he focuses most of his criticisms on GCSEs and secondary education, rather than A-levels. It is about time for a fresh approach though, rather than tinkering with bits of the system, which clearly has little effect. However, the breadth of the system should not compromise depth too much, otherwise university degrees will end up longer than they already are.
Nathan James (Liverpool University student), Liverpool
As a current A-Level student I would like to say that ANYTHING is better than the system we have in place at the moment. After three solid years of exams people are simply exhausted and the pressure and the stress is simply unnecessary. This system prevents people learning for inspiration and the enjoyable fulfilling experience that it should be and leaves people 'robots' cramming for exams and resenting the system. Please let the new proposals go through!
Jocelyn Rebuck, London
In recent years the government have turned a highly regarded education system into a joke! They have devalued the grades that students achieve and continuously changed the format, content, etc. They can shake it up as much as they like but trying to increase the number of students passing, going to university instead of going on the dole, etc. will result in a Third World system. I am working to ensure my children will not be educated in Britain!
Carol, Basildon, UK
If the shake-up produces graduates who are able to put together a complex and grammatically correct sentence, and teaches all students how to understand finances "before" they get into difficulties, then it may just make a difference. If it encourages boys to study instead of expressing a faulty machismo image of failure, it may make a difference. However, replacing the current failure with another under a different name isn't worth the millions it will cost to change.
If the government hadn't been so flexible in its approach to results there wouldn't even be a need for this. Another total waste of money, just like the House of Lords reform, devolution, PFI and the war in Iraq.
Martin, Reading, UK