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A-level reform hopes dashed

Radical change is pointless when the future of the exam is so uncertain, says Tomlinson inquiry. Julie Henry reports.

Heads and teachers demanding radical changes to the A-level structure - including more internal assessment and a merger of the exam boards - will be disappointed by the second part of Mike Tomlinson's inquiry.

Restoration of confidence in the system before the 2003 exams is the main aim of the review, to be published next month. It was ordered by former education secretary Estelle Morris following the A-level furore which resulted in 2,000 students receiving a subject upgrade.

The controversial idea of using trainee teachers as examiners gets Tomlinson's backing. Early indications from exam board Edexcel, which used teaching students this year, is that their marking was of high quality. Mr Tomlinson said schools could employ new teachers from July rather than September and examining could be a key part of professional development.

"We are seeking a professional concept of examining. That is not to be critical of examiners now. I think they do a fantastic job. But we need to have much more consistency." Mr Tomlinson said schools should get cash via the Government's standards fund to pay for teachers to train as examiners out of school.

Such formal training could be an important part of preparing teachers for management posts, he said.

The inquiry looks unlikely to lighten the external exam burden in the lower sixth. It is expected to propose that AS has two, rather than the current three, externally assessed units. But the content of the syllabus would remain the same and AS would still count as 50 per cent of the A-level.

This will disappoint those who want to change the 5050 ASA2 split (to give more weight to the latter) and those who want to make A2 independent of the AS.

Mr Tomlinson is reluctant to tinker with the system while its long-term shape remains unclear. He said it would simply cause more upheaval if major changes were made only for ministers to end up proposing an English baccalaur-eate. "We cannot afford to have the system lurch from one significant change to the next in a disjointed way," he said.

The long-term vision for the post-16 exam system will emerge in the Government's plans to reform 14 to 19 education, he said.

There has been overwhelming support for an independent exam regulator that reports to Parliament. Mr Tomlinson agrees that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority should be more independent, but insists that its legal status is less important than it being more transparent in its work.

The inquiry will recommend that an independent group is established to ensure standards are maintained over time and there is no "dumbing down". This would report in public and perhaps be answerable to the Commons education select committee.

"We need to start this now, not pick it up 10 years down the line," Mr Tomlinson said. "We have got to stop saying we do not know if standards are being maintained and get in a position to say we do know and this is what we have done about it."

He said exam boards would have to cut bureaucracy. By 2004, he said, they could use a common exam-entry form and deliver students' results in the same format. But schools would also have a part to play.

Late and "pirate" entries, where an unentered pupil sits the exam on the day, were putting strain on the system. Also, only a fifth of schools submit coursework before the deadline. "The exam system is like a relay race. If any one of the partners does not do the job, everybody loses," he said.

Mr Tomlinson believes the idea of merging the exam boards into one, while superficially attractive, is not the way forward. It would reduce choice and, if things went wrong, they would go wrong for everybody.

He said: "The argument is not about one board or three, it is about making sure that the three we have do not have different arrangements. It should be like a single board operating out of three franchises."

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