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Dissertations are the new coursework

Mike Tomlinson appears to have achieved that rare thing in education policy: near consensus. But the ramifications of his radical reforms are unlikely to be felt for quite a while. Although the broad gist of what he proposes seems relatively clear, a diploma that covers the last four years of schooling, the precise working out of his plans are less obvious. What they seem to promise, however, is a system less dominated by timed examination and an opportunity for that notion currently much prized by new Labour - personalised learning.

And this can only be a good thing. At the moment, pupils take major public exams every year from the age of 14, bar one. The rigidity of the examination structure and the constraints of the syllabus mean that teaching to the test limits the opportunities that the school curriculum might afford. In Tomlinson's future, GCSEs and AS-levels are a thing of the past. They are to be replaced by teacher assessment.

What form this might take has not yet been disclosed but at its best it could allow pupils and teachers considerably more flexibility to negotiate the tasks in which they engage. More important, it will allow teachers to tailor work to suit the needs of their pupils. When 100 per cent coursework existed in English, for example, I was much more able than I would be in the present system to stretch the brightest pupils in the assignments I set. It was also more possible to accommodate the interests of those who appeared to be less keen.

Indeed, contrary to the popular mythology that suggests coursework gives girls an advantage, it was disaffected boys who particularly benefited.

Instead of having to analyse to destruction a text presented to them by an examination board, boys were able to develop their own tastes in reading.

Moreover, their writing improved as they were able to articulate ideas which mattered to them, rather than having to tailor their answers to satisfy an apparently arbitrary rubric.

The 1991 Office for Standards in Education report into boys' achievement in English noted these positive effects of coursework. It also suggested that the regular short-term deadlines, as opposed to the long-term or delayed deadline of a terminal exam, helped boys to focus their work.

What is significant, however, is that Tomlinson has deliberately eschewed the term "coursework". The word itself is part of an old - and for some, discredited - order. To ensure that there can be no accusation of dumbing down at 18, therefore, he has stressed the importance of the timed examination and called the coursework element a "dissertation".

It is a shrewd move to borrow the word from academic discourse. The irony of all the furore over teacher-based assessments at school level has always been that the most demanding of all academic qualifications is the thesis - one piece of work written over a number of years. Tomlinson has acknowledged the intellectual demands of sustaining an argument over a lengthy piece of writing by suggesting that it is the dissertation that will challenge the most able and help universities to discriminate between candidates.

Yet, in suggesting a system so free of terminal examination, Tomlinson is taking a risk. The past 15 years or so have told a story of political mistrust of teacher assessment. The Tories, having introduced it in 1987, abolished it five years later, and Labour has added to the exam burden of pupils in the interests of public accountability. Timed tests bespeak objectivity, teacher assessment subjectivity and cheating.

To this end, Tomlinson's request for a long lead-time into the changes, to ensure that teachers are confident and consistent in their assessments, is a wise move and very different from the timetable which ushered in the current A-level system. But that time may also allow politicians to over-prescribe how the teacher assessment is to be conducted and what the criteria for the dissertation may be. Then all the good that Tomlinson's report hints is achievable will be lost and we will be left with another version of the same thing.

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