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Exam reform tests drawn up

The five key tests that the long-awaited plans to reform 14-to-19 education must pass before they are accepted by ministers were outlined to MPs this week.

The reforms must prove they will challenge both able and disadvantaged pupils before they will be accepted by the Education Secretary Charles Clarke, the education select committee was told.

A working group led by former schools chief inspector Mike Tomlinson has produced plans to replace GCSEs, A-levels and existing vocational qualifications with a four-level diploma system within 10 years.

It produced an interim report in February outlining its reforms. A final report is due to be published in the autumn.

Senior officials from the Department for Education and Skills spelt out to the education committee on Monday how the Tomlinson findings will be judged.

They must satisfy the secretary of state that the reforms stretch the most able young people, and second, that they reduce the burden of assessment.

Third, they must show that the reforms engage the disadvantaged and tackle the scandal of the high drop out rate at 16.

They must also show that they address the historic failure to provide a high-quality vocational route for young people, and fifth they must show they provide adequate preparation for young people entering the world of work.

The tests were revealed by Rob Hull, director of qualifications and young people at the DfES. He was giving evidence to the committee that is investigating the national skills strategy for 14 to 19 education.

Mr Hull told the committee that there is a huge problem to be addressed over attitudes towards academic and vocational routes for young people.

"In the past we have talked about parity of esteem but there is no magic wand that will make that happen," he said. "There is a limit to what we can do to change attitudes. The change will come gradually."

He said there are many young people on a predominantly academic track who could be better served by taking a vocational route.

"Some young people are probably taking the wrong route and are going for A-levels when vocational subjects would be much more appropriate for them," he said.

In an international league table of 17-year-olds' participation in education and training, the UK is ranked 27th out of 30 developed nations, the committee was told in written evidence from the DfES.

Those who remain in learning often fail to reach their potential. "They often study post-16 programmes that do not equip them fully for entering either employment or further learning," the memorandum added.

Carol Hunter, divisional manager for the 14-19 programme at the DfES, told the committee: "We are trying to create a climate in which employers are more aware of the relationship between skills and productivity."

She said that one of the principles guiding provision in the sector is that all learners have access to high-quality provision, and also that there is collaboration between institutions to provide diversity, curriculum breadth and a range of different types of learning.

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