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Could graded tests replace sacred cows?

Two things together seem to have convinced Education Secretary Charles Clarke that the secondary school system is failing.

The first is the gap between this country and the rest of Europe in technical skills; the second the fact that many who leave school for higher education are incapable of writing coherently, even if they have performed well enough in A-levels to be accepted at university.

And so the Tomlinson report has been commissioned and is now out for consultation. I sincerely hope that this will be an opportunity for radical reform.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a book called A Common Policy for Education in which I argued that our system was bedevilled by what I called Platonism, that is a fatal preference for the theoretical over the practical.

At that time GCSEs were new, but this did not remedy things; instead, the phenomenon known as academic drift (familiar in the polytechnics of the time) became more marked, as more pupils were encouraged to take A-levels, an examination that uneasily combines the role of school-leaving certificate and university entrance test.

There have been increasing numbers of students taking A-levels, even getting good grades, who have no interest in the subjects they study, and little ability to think.

My suggested solution was to abandon both GCSE and A-levels, to divide all or almost all subjects into the practical and the theoretical (following the German distinction between Technik and Wissenschaft) and allow students to take whatever mixture of the two appealed, their achievement in each shown on one certificate.

My model was the graded examinations of the Associated Board in music, where the practical is separated from the theoretical, and both are externally examined.

The examinations would not be taken in great blocks, nor at any particular age, but when each student was ready. Thus, in modern languages, a child who was bilingual or who had a particular aptitude might shoot ahead in spoken French, while progressing less fast in the study of French history or literature.

In the sciences, someone might be fascinated by the theory or philosophy of physics, but less good at practical applications, or the mathematics involved.

In English, the practical would be the written and spoken word, the academic the study of literature. It would be easy to draw the same kind of distinction in information technology and design.

My bright idea found no favour (though there have long been experimental schemes of graded tests, especially in modern languages). Many teachers argued that the difficulties of organising teaching in schools would be overwhelming.

There would be practical difficulties, but these should not be the sole reason for refusing to consider such a scheme; and there might be great advantages in having a class for, say, grade VI maths, which might be attended by pupils of different ages. There would certainly be advantages in teaching literature only to people who wanted to learn, while being sure that everyone was learning, as part of their practical, how to write and even spell.

Others argued that it is somehow wrong to learn to practise a skill without learning the theory behind it. But this seems to me itself an example of academic drift. Why should everyone who learns to cook need to know about the chemistry of the ingredients? No sooner had technology been introduced as a subject in GCSE than it was loaded down with such academic padding, and children who might have become skilled cooks failed because they could not master or were bored by the chemistry.

But the main reason why my lovely plan was rejected with scorn was that A-levels had become a breed of sacred cow. A-levels formed the gold standard of our secondary education system. Merely to utter this platitude served as argument.

If a scheme of this kind were introduced, it might turn out that fewer people went on from school to read for academic degrees, more went straight to work, or entered apprenticeships. We might even have to reinvent the polytechnics. But in my view, this would be nothing but good.

If Mike Tomlinson's new diploma turns out to be some sort of much more refined cousin of my graded tests, then I for one shall welcome it.

Letters, 14

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