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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 July, 2003, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Diploma could replace A-levels
Pupils collect exam results
Pupils would see the importance of individual grades change
The biggest shake-up of the English exam system for half a century could lead to the scrapping of A-levels and GCSES - and their replacement with a single school diploma.

A review of secondary education for 14 to 19 year olds has recommended that GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications become just components of an over-arching diploma.

Students would have to reach a certain standard in English, maths and computer skills to get the new certificate - which would have four levels of difficulty.

The proposals come from the former chief inspector of schools in England, Mike Tomlinson.

Giving details of his interim report in London on Wednesday, he called for a "coherent approach".

The Baccalaureate lets me do all the subjects I like
Esme Ferrington

To get a diploma, pupils would do a mixture of academic or vocational subjects as well as English, maths and computer skills.

The diploma could also reflect extra-curricular activities such as voluntary work, music and sport, which is an element of the International Baccalaureate Mr Tomlinson's plans have been likened to.

There would be four levels of difficulty, starting from the age of 14.

The top level would be the equivalent of today's A-levels.

Mr Tomlinson said the changes he envisaged would raise overall standards, demand more of the most able students and be more useful to employers.

His report says pupils should face fewer exams between the ages of 14 and 19, with more emphasis on assessment by teachers.

The report said: "There is too much emphasis on traditional written examinations, sometimes at the expense of wider learning, skills and personal development."

Key skills

Mr Tomlinson said the recommendations, which could be introduced in about five or ten years' time, were intended to raise standards and would not "dumb-down" the exams system.

The best students could benefit from proposals to introduce dissertations which could be on topics drawing on skills from a range of subjects, he said.
At last we have the prospect of an over-arching diploma that properly recognises all qualifications and all levels of achievement
David Hart - National Association of Head Teachers

He said some pupils were being let down by the present system.

"The system at the moment is not serving the interests of all our students in the way that we would want.

"There is a very sad drop-out at 16."

A diploma would also help employers by offering more information than GCSE or A-level grades can, Mr Tomlinson added.

"What it would tell them is the standard achieved, not only in their specialist subject, but whether or not they had reached an appropriate standard in the key skills of literacy, numeracy and use of ICT (information and communication technology).

"It might also tell the employer a lot about the individuals' other work that is not examined - whether that is voluntary service or anything of that description."

The changes could improve the profile of vocational courses, as they could get greater recognition than they have at present.

'Scrap heap'

Critics fear the changes could mean some 16-year-old school-leavers could be left without any qualifications.

Exam hall
The report calls for a reduction in the exams burden

But the aim is to encourage as many young people as possible to go onto further education, an area where Britain lags behind many of its economic rivals.

Shadow education secretary Damian Green said the recommendations would "do nothing to restore confidence in A-levels which is so necessary after last years fiasco".

"The suggestion of mixing academic and non-academic in a single diploma will leave universities and employers confused about the standards the diploma represents and would further weaken confidence in our exam system," he said.

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis welcomed the proposals.

He said: "The present system of qualifications condemns 50% of young people to the scrap heap at 16.

"Liberal Democrats support the ending of age-related examinations and the introduction of diplomas that will recognise the achievements of all young people."

Teaching unions also gave the proposals a cautious welcome.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said qualifications needed to be reformed to make them more relevant to the needs of industry.

He added: "At last we have the prospect of an over-arching diploma that properly recognises all qualifications and all levels of achievement."


The proposals are coming under fire from another chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead.

He said the plans would amount to a "watered down mish-mash" of the International Baccalaureate, because the exams would not be tough enough.

"The government is not going to preside over a system which would make it less likely that people would go to university.

"I think Mike Tomlinson has sold his educational soul for a mess of political pottage."

Mr Tomlinson was asked to look at government plans for a Baccalaureate-style diploma, first set out in January.

It proposed reducing the amount students had to do between the ages of 15 and 16 "to the minimum essential for future progression and personal development".

The ideas are going out for consultation before Mr Tomlinson publishes his complete recommendations on education between the ages of 14 and 19 in July next year.

Schools minister David Milliband said he welcomed Mr Tomlinson's progress report as a first stage in the consultation process on the long-term reform of the 14-19 phase of education and training.

"This is the first stage in a long process. If reform is necessary, it will not be rushed," he said.

"Our cast-iron guarantee is any reform will be thoroughly tested. But our first priority is to restore confidence in A-levels."

The BBC's James Westhead
"The proposed system would offer more flexibility and choice"

Q & A: Overhauling the exam system
16 Jul 03  |  Middle East
Enjoying the Baccalaureate life
16 Jul 03  |  Education
Welsh lesson for bacc plans
16 Jul 03  |  Wales
Mixed reaction to exam reform plan
16 Jul 03  |  Education
Baccalaureate could replace A-levels
21 Jan 03  |  Education
Vocational options for bored pupils
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Secondary students' paths diverge
21 Jan 03  |  Education

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