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Apprentice boost in radical exam reform

Proposals for a bac-like diploma will improve vocational schemes.

Ian Nash reports.

THE Government's taskforce on the reform of 14 to 19 qualifications is set to back a new certificate that could end A-levels and GCSEs.

Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of schools and the taskforce's chair, this week outlined a blueprint of reform based on a baccalaureate-style diploma for all 14 to 19-year-olds.

Views of the taskforce to be unveiled in detail next month, are far more radical than many had expected. He gave a broad outline of what is proposed, when he addressed the Association of Colleges' annual sixth- form conference in Cambridge.

But, in an interview with FE Focus, he went further, suggesting reforms which all but abandon freestanding A-levels and GCSEs in favour of a bac-type award.

Mr Tomlinson singled out the modern apprenticeship as a victim of a redundant qualification system. "The framework we are suggesting could help enormously with the design of programmes and could enhance the rate at which young people get through their MAs."

The proposals include a compulsory core of literacy, numeracy and information technology; scope for specialising; optional studies and a record of extra-curricular achievements - all within an over-arching diploma. Students would take exams at four levels: entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced, when they were ready to do so.

The proposals also call for a simplification of the qualifications structure, far fewer vocational awards, cuts in the number of tests and exams and more modular learning.

Any new qualification would have to have the same credibility as those it replaced, he said. But that could be achieved with a reduced amount of both testing and coursework:

"I think there is a serious question to ask about why we have coursework in so many subjects. It seems quite reasonable, if you are testing certain skills like analysis and communication, to test them once or twice, not eight times."

Mr Tomlinson is due to meet Sir Roy Gardner, chairman of the national modern apprenticeship taskforce to consider the wider implications of the reforms for occupational qualifications.

Colleges and industry are certain to welcome more flexibility in the MA framework and, in particular, reform of the much-criticised key skills element.

There are 220,000 modern apprentices but there are concerns over how MAs fit into the bewildering array of vocational qualifications.

There is also concern over the lack of "portability" as four out of five trainees switch jobs before the end of the three-year apprenticeship.

But key skills attract the greatest opprobium. Last autumn the Adult Learning Inspectorate described them as "the biggest single cause of young people's failure to succeed with a modern apprenticeship."

Mr Tomlinson said the proposed reforms could have two advantages for MAs: there would be greater flexibility and key skills would be addressed in school.

"We are pushing remediation higher and higher up the age-range. Now it is at undergraduate level," he said. "Between 14 and 16, the only way to do basic skills is GCSE. It is make or break for many and it is not appropriate."

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