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It's broke but can we fix it?

Our qualifications system needs help - but is a radical Tomlinson operation the best remedy? asks Warwick Mansell

Amid varying reactions to last week's Tomlinson Report on the future of secondary education, most commentators agreed on one thing: the former chief inspector's analysis of what is wrong with the current system is fundamentally sound.

Indeed, reading the Tomlinson working party's justification for the radical action it claims to be proposing, it is difficult to find much with which to quibble.

School staying-on rates are far too low, the 100-page report asserts. The UK lies 27th out of 30 among developed countries ranked according to the proportion of 17-year-olds in education and training. Only 40 per cent of youngsters gaining up to four GCSEs at grades D-G go on to further education.

Among employers and universities, there is a widespread perception that many young people are leaving school without the fundamental literacy and numeracy skills to make progress in their work.

Recent qualifications reforms, such as the introduction of the AS-level and the advanced extension award for the brightest pupils, have been, at best, partial successes, with the AS in particular failing to achieve the goal of promoting greater breadth of sixth-form study. Universities now have difficulty discriminating between candidates scoring high grades at A-level.

The assessment demands made of students and schools have grown way out of hand, with repetitive coursework particularly at fault. The range of vocational programmes is "fragmented and confusing". Too many courses are of doubtful worth and it is often difficult for the student to see how completing one will equip them to move to the next stage in their career.

As a diagnosis of the current state of secondary qualifications, this is damning.

But is the treatment being suggested by Mr Tomlinson's group the right one, and will it work? Reaction to the report, which suggests a four-level diploma into which would be absorbed all GCSE, A-level and vocational courses, has essentially turned on one dilemma.

If the situation is so bad, do we need a complete overhaul of the qualifications structure - that is, is it something about the system itself which is producing these problems? Or would it be better to work within the current framework, but concentrate on areas needing urgent attention, such as improving young people's literacy and numeracy skills, or vocational courses?

To extend the medical analogy, does the sick patient need to be operated on, or is a dose of antibiotics the answer?

Most of the immediate response to the report has sided with Tomlinson in answering yes to the first question. The report itself dismisses previous attempts at reform as "tinkering" and argues for root-and-branch changes.

However, some commentators, and groups such as the Confederation of British Industry, take the latter view, suggesting that the report's bewilderingly detailed reforms stand only to confuse employers and distract attention from fairly basic problems.

But is it even right to characterise the report, which is going out to consultation before final recommendations are made to ministers in September, as promoting a radical approach to qualifications reform? In at least two ways, it is not as bold as it could have been.

The group has followed previous government investigations into qualifications in rejecting the idea of forcing youngsters to take particular combinations of subjects in the sixth form.

This is a key element of continental baccalaureate systems. Their supporters claim that while British A-levels leave our students with a relatively good grasp of particular subjects, their post-16 education often lacks breadth.

The group has also not even considered one potential solution to the drop-out problem. Why not simply raise the school-leaving age? The huge costs involved have ensured that this idea is a non-starter.

The proposals do contain radical ideas, however. Most notable is the proposal to require all youngsters to gain the equivalent of GCSE grade C in functional maths, communication and computing, in order to gain the benchmark intermediate diploma set at GCSE level.

This represents a serious challenge; currently only 43 per cent of 16-year-olds achieve grade C in both maths and English GCSE. Will setting the bar this high demotivate youngsters and depress staying-on rates still further?

The working group may argue that this need not be the case given that the diploma proposals would allow students to sit the qualification later than at 16 if they wished.

And if, and this may be a big "if", the intermediate diploma does become the passport to success in work and further studies, then more young people might be persuaded to stay on to try to achieve it.

Second, the group suggests that at all diploma levels, students must complete an extended project, or "personal challenge", allowing them to demonstrate independent research, planning, analytical and communication skills. This might result in a dissertation, a piece of experimental science or a video.

The report's claim that it could be valued by employers and universities seems plausible.

Third, the potential design of individual diplomas is interesting. The report suggests dividing the qualification into, first, a range of "open" diplomas, with students having largely free choice over which subjects to take, along the lines of GCSEs and A-levels. Most would take this model until the sixth form.

The over-16s would then have a choice of continuing along the "open" route, or picking from a range of "specialist" diplomas, in both vocational and academic subjects. These would be designed by employers, universities or colleges and would lay down which subjects youngsters should study. They could embrace, for example, courses required to start a physics degree or a career in the construction industry.

Above all, the attempt to produce a system which, throughout all courses, aims to give youngsters the chance to progress at their own pace towards clear goals, deserves serious attention.

But potentially formidable obstacles stand in Tomlinson's way.

Arguably the central difficulty is whether the diploma will have currency as a qualification in its own right. The group has said that students will receive grades for individual components, or subject courses, as well as the overall diploma award.

If employers and universities have access to this detailed information, will they then ignore the diploma itself, meaning a return to the present system by default? This was the problem that brought down previous diploma plans, put forward by the Dearing review of 1996, and proposals for a graduation certificate suggested in a 2002 14-19 Green Paper.

The group will argue that the diploma's compulsory elements, such as the personal challenge and the emphasis on basic skills, will give it a value in its own right.

It is also suggesting that the qualification itself should be graded, on a passmeritdistinction model. This would add to its currency.

But it throws up another problem: how to ensure that a diploma passed with merit, say, in one subject area, is worth the same as in another.

There could be big difficulties here. Trying to create a points-based system, into which every type of course will fit without producing biases in which students opt for perceived "easier" options, and where the resulting diploma actually means something, will be hard work.

The exam boards are worried about a lack of detail in the report about which assessment models the new system will use. The group has also said little about what courses in functional communication or maths will look like. Above all, the new system has yet to be costed.

In its final report in September, the group is certain to recommend further work in many of these areas. It is unsurprising, then, that ministers have chosen to hedge their bets on whether they will accept its recommendations.

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