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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 October, 2004, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Q&A: New school diplomas
The government-commissioned working party led by Mike Tomlinson has delivered its final report on the future of education for England's 14 to 19 year olds.

Does this really mean an end to GCSEs and A-levels?

And, you might add, NVQs, BTecs and modern apprenticeships and so on...

Yes and no.

The team is proposing new diplomas, set at four levels - entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced.

But the main components of these would probably be derived from the existing qualifications.

What is new is an emphasis on a "core" of skills that everyone would have to have.

These include what the working party calls "functional" maths, communication and ICT skills.

These emphatically are not GCSE maths and English, which are not regarded as doing the job of giving people the basic skills employers and universities require.

Other "common skills" would involve such things as managing one's own time and working with others - employability, if you like.

Would people still have to do exams?

Again, yes and no. There would still be assessment and where suitable this would involve what are known as time-limited written papers - the familiar two hours, say, to answer a set of questions.

But the working party wants to put a greater emphasis on internal assessment within schools at the intermediate level, equivalent to the current GCSEs.

So this might involve practical demonstrations and ongoing assessment by teachers, with proper training and safeguards as to their workload.

There is also great hope for the role "e-assessment" might play - using information and communication technology.

So will there still be coursework?

Coursework was panned in the group's interim report, which talked of "unimaginative, over-specified and repetitive coursework, often testing the same skills in several subjects".

Instead the team is proposing people should do a single extended project or "personal challenge".

This might be in one favourite subject or cover a range of subjects - and might not be a written thing at all, but something they have designed and built, or perhaps a video presentation.

The idea is that it would demonstrate the ability to plan something, research it, analyse material and compile a finished piece.

I heard people would take levels when they were ready for them?

This is one of the things at the heart of the proposals - that learning should be ability-related not age-related.

Already there is nothing to say people must take exams at a certain age, and in particular many take a number of their GCSEs at 15 rather than 16.

But the team is talking about much greater use of mixed-age classes, so that the learning is focused on the individual and each person progresses at their own pace.

The team seems confident this will not pose too big an organisational problem for schools - indeed, Mike Tomlinson has said one of the biggest difficulties teachers have is coping with classes in which there is a wide range of ability.

One key aspect of the report is that the different levels would be intermingled to an extent so that there is a natural progression from one to the next and so that people can "mix and match" what they are doing.

How would the diplomas be graded?

Each level of diploma above entry level would be graded pass, merit or distinction - rather as GNVQs currently do it.

And there would be detailed "transcripts" of each student's achievements in the various modules of work they had undertaken.

At advanced level, there is a particular problem with "bunching" at the top A-level grade.

The report recommends extending the range of grades in certain advanced diploma components - in effect incorporating the sort of tougher questions that are in the current AEA (Advanced Extension Award), introduced with the Curriculum 2000 changes but not a huge success.

This would allow for A+ and A++ grades above the current A grade.

This is for England - what about the rest of the UK?

At present GCSEs, GNVQs, A-levels and so on are taken in Wales and Northern Ireland as well as in England - Scotland has always had its own system.

Wales is already introducing a Welsh Baccalaureate at advanced level.

This has some similarities with the Tomlinson proposals, in particular its focus on a core of basic and employability skills, plus options from traditional qualifications such as A-levels.

There is also "a distinct Welsh cultural element focused on Wales and the World".

Northern Ireland's qualifications body, CCEA, said it was about to implement a new curriculum putting more emphasis on the knowledge and skills youngsters needed to become successful as individuals, citizens and contributors to the economy.

GCSEs and A-levels "remain top class qualifications".

Scotland's system changed in 2000, with a more modular structure and - again - recognition of "core skills".

Intermediate courses were introduced as an alternative but equal exam to Standard Grade. Highers, usually taken a year later, remain the main qualifications needed to win a university place.

In their sixth and last year at school, pupils can now sit Advanced Highers which the university admissions service rates as equivalent to A-levels.

The Scottish Executive has endorsed a proposal from the Scottish Qualifications Authority to scrap Highers which attract fewer than 100 candidates a year. Almost half of the 80 subjects are at risk. But the Executive says it will listen to appeals for individual subjects to be retained.

A review is going on of the whole Scottish school curriculum, from the age of three to 18.

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