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Commentary - A barrage of potential change but little accord and even less detail

The silence that descended when journalists were asked whether they had any questions about the Sykes review said it all. It was difficult to know where to start.

The Conservative-commissioned review of the English qualifications system covers a huge amount of ground, with suggestions on everything from university entrance to A-levels, GCSEs and the national curriculum.

But they are set out over just 28 pages leaving a huge gulf in detail for anyone wanting to find out what would happen to exams under a Tory government.

On the face of it, what Sir Richard Sykes and his team recommends amounts to a year zero for much of the existing system.

All A-levels would be redesigned from scratch with direct input from universities, and a big reduction modularisation likely.

Separate standardised university admissions tests would run alongside them and there would be a reduced role for Ofqual.

Even more significantly, Sir Richard calls for an end to GCSEs. And if his report's recommendations are followed, the school league tables based on the exams will go the same way.

But that is a big if. The report says that beyond a core of English and maths, schools should be free to pick any other type of external qualifications they want, such as IGCSEs. So "a range" of accountability measures would be available.

But the system used to determine equivalences between such qualifications would be scrapped.

So there would no longer be a common comparable measure for all schools to base league tables on. That is fine by Sir Richard, who said at this week's press conference: "We are trying to get away from the league table system."

But Michael Gove admitted this was where he "differed" from the review group - unsurprising, as only three months ago the shadow education secretary had pledged that "league tables will be here to stay if you elect a Conservative government".

Sir Richard went on: "We should get away from this word GCSE. It has been so devalued that whatever we do at that stage we should call it something else."

But once again Mr Gove disagreed, saying it was "perfectly acceptable" to continue using it.

And if there were contradictions between the Conservatives and their experts, then there are plenty more within the report itself.

It states, for example, that only "a small number" of schools "must be monitored and held rigorously accountable". But only four paragraphs later, the review says "there needs to be a thorough and effective system for holding schools accountable".

Conservative insiders say the review fits the party's narrative on education. They admit it would need civil service resources to work out how to implement it and that no major change could be expected until at least 2012.

So it may take a long time to work the proposals into a coherent whole. But it seems schools can expect little respite from the perpetual revolution in exams if the Tories do win power this year.

'Split at Year 8'

Children should be divided up at 12, according to the philosopher Mary Warnock who led a key inquiry into special education.

Writing in The TES today, Baroness Warnock calls for children to be split into technical, academic or practical streams in Year 8. A-levels would be abolished, and GCSEs would be replaced with "one set of exams whose purpose would be to ensure that good standards of reading, writing and comprehension had been achieved over a wide range of subjects".

"This could be examined within the school and monitored by teachers from other schools," she writes.

Schools would also save money by putting pupils largely in charge of sports, drama and music from Year 9 onwards.

Comment, page 33.

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