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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 October, 2004, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Major reform of teen schooling
Mike Tomlinson
Mike Tomlinson has sought to build a consensus for the plans
The biggest shake-up of secondary schooling in England for decades has been proposed in a major report.

GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications should evolve over the next decade into a new diploma system, The Tomlinson report recommends.

There would be fewer exams but, at advanced level, tougher questions would stretch the brightest.

The diploma would also cater for those wanting work-related learning and have an emphasis on basic skills.

Exam burden

The diploma would be at four overlapping levels: entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced.

Advanced - AS-level and A-level, Level 3 NVQ, BTec Nationals and others
Intermediate - GCSEs grades A* to C, Intermediate GNVQ, Level 2 NVQ and others
Foundation - GCSEs grades D to G, Level 1 NVQ and others
Entry level - Entry level certificates

One of the main aims has been to reduce the burden of exams currently faced by England's teenagers - often described as the most tested in the world.

Coursework, discredited as prone to cheating, would be drastically reduced.

Diplomas at each level would be graded: pass, merit and distinction - rather as existing vocational qualifications are.

The advanced level would probably involve two "modules" in the first year and two in the second, rather than the present three in each year.

There would be an extended project, intended to allow youngsters to develop and demonstrate a greater depth of knowledge.

As a qualification, it would take in elements of the little-used "advanced extension awards", offering extra questions to challenge those at higher ability levels.

Four-level diploma to be introduced as new qualification
A-level and GCSE courses would be components
Mandatory "core" of basic English and maths
Pupils learn at own pace, assessed when ready
Assessment by teachers except at advanced level
Vocational options improved
Recognition for other experiences, such as voluntary work
Coursework replaced by a single big project
Changes gradual - taking perhaps a decade

These would offer new A+ and A++ grades on top of the present A grade - so universities and employers could distinguish more readily between the best candidates - though some people think this a "ludicrous" idea.

Syllabuses would have to be re-jigged but head teachers say this might start in the autumn of 2007.

At all diploma levels, a transcript would detail students' achievements in the individual modules they had taken.

Teacher assessment

But Mr Tomlinson is emphatic that the proposals must have extensive piloting, unlike the Curriculum 2000 reforms which saw the introduction of AS and A2 - widely regarded as hurried and botched.

At intermediate level, roughly equivalent to the current GCSEs, the ideas involve a far greater reliance on internal assessment by teachers.

There is agreement on the notion of having specialist teachers as "chartered assessors".

This is a model proposed by the Secondary Heads Association - but classroom teachers' unions have expressed concern that their members' workloads might increase.

The idea is to make the intermediate level more of a "progress check" and less a final set of qualifications - thereby encouraging more people to stay on at the end of compulsory education at the age of 16.

Indeed a feature of the proposals is that students would take diploma levels when ready, rather than at fixed points in their schooling.

Basic skills

But there would be external tests of "core skills". To get a diploma, everyone would need the "functional" communication and numeracy skills.

These are not the same as current GCSE English and maths and information technology.

Employers are adamant that existing courses do not produce potential employees with the skills they need to function effectively in the workplace - especially in communication.

The final report stresses that assessment of these basics, by external examiners, must be demanding.

And young people would have to master them all - so they could not get away with doing well in one to mask lower performance in another.

Diplomas would have different strands involving varying degrees of specialisation in, for example, engineering and technology, or social sciences.

Funding issue

The foundation level aims in part to mark the achievements of youngsters who currently get lower-level GCSEs and thus tend to be invisible in performance tables.

They achieve a diploma level - rather than failing to achieve a higher grade GCSE.

The entry level would offer a diploma for those who, in the main, have special educational needs.

A feature of the proposals is greater crossover between schools and colleges, especially for youngsters wanting to develop work-related qualifications.

This highlights the disparities in pay and funding between the two sectors - with college lecturers saying they fear the resources may not follow the ideas.

It would be biggest shake-up since the 1940s

Learning diploma plans 'on track'
29 Sep 04 |  Education

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