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Last Updated: Monday, 21 February, 2005, 13:37 GMT
A-levels are to stay, says Kelly
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

Mike Tomlinson
Sir Mike's exam reform plans face a tough political test
There are further signs the government is not going to adopt the reform plan for England's secondary schools put forward by the Tomlinson report.

The government's response to the plan for a four-tier diploma to replace all existing 14-19 qualifications is expected next week.

But Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has said GCSEs and A-levels will stay.

"You don't improve a system by getting rid of what's good," she told the Sunday Telegraph.

She said the qualifications were recognised by employers, parents and teachers.

"I want to improve what we've got, not replace it."

Key planks of the educational establishment - including the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and Ofsted - have advised the government not to "cherry pick" the Tomlinson plans.

But people understand that the government needs to present its plans in a way that does not alarm more conservatively-minded voters.

So they say privately they may be content if it does not "close too many doors" in writing - whatever spin is put on its response in briefings to selected newspaper political correspondents.

The diploma does not involve "scrapping" GCSEs and A-levels but keeping their courses as building blocks, in a process of evolution over a decade or so.

So to an extent the debate has been about whether or not the "labels" should remain.


The Sunday Telegraph also reported Ms Kelly would "introduce a new vocational qualification to run parallel to A-levels".

And the Sunday Times said there would be "a new vocational qualification" with equal standing to A-levels".

It is not clear what this would mean, given that there are already vocational A-levels and GCSEs - the most recent attempts to put vocational studies on a par with more academic courses.

At GCSE level, vocational qualifications are increasingly important in the government's effort to raise attainment and recognise children's achievements.

The proportion of students attaining five or more good GCSEs has levelled off in the past few years.

But more students have been taking General National Vocational Qualifications.

And this year far more vocational qualifications were recognised in the annual performance tables - prompting criticism from some because a certificate in cake decoration is now equivalent to four good GCSEs.

From this year, there are to be similar "equivalences" at A-level.

The government regards any criticisms of these changes as a form of snobbery.

Core skills

Ms Kelly has also said there will be a new drive to improve basic maths and English among school-leavers.

This is also a key aim of the Tomlinson reforms.

Sir Mike has echoed employers in criticising the standards expected for English and maths GCSEs - even though fewer than half of 16-year-olds get a good grade in both subjects as it is.

He has proposed different tests of "functional" literacy and numeracy as a basic requirement of the diploma - but specifically not GCSE-type exams.

Sir Mike was briefed on the government's response to his working party only this week.

On Friday he was said to be feeling more comfortable about what it was likely to say than if he had only read what was in newspapers in the earlier part of the week, with similar reports of a "vocational only" diploma.

The government was said to be still rewriting its plans on Friday.

But the chairman of the Commons education select committee, Labour MP Barry Sheerman, has said that if it does opt for a separate vocational diploma it will perpetuate an educational division which he sees as the foundation of the class structure.

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