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An A-level in stupidity

The Government is wrong to change direction on Tomlinson's reforms just because an election is approaching, says John Dunford

If the Government regards it as essential to retain A-levels and GCSEs, when did this become such a high political priority? In early 2003, when the Tomlinson group was established, its terms of reference sought a strengthened structure of vocational qualifications, greater coherence in learning programmes for all young people, manageable assessment appropriate for different types of course, and a unified framework of qualifications.

There was no mention of keeping A-levels and GCSEs.

The terms of reference concluded with the expectation that the group would consult and take account of the views of employers, universities and the young people themselves, learn from practice in other countries, and use evidence from the 14-19 pathfinder projects. There is no mention of taking account of the effect of an impending general election.

Tomlinson's diploma was designed to bring coherence into a system that has manifestly lacked coherence for generations. Only by bringing academic and vocational courses into a unified qualifications system, the report stated, can we escape from the second-best tag that has bedevilled vocational courses.

If A-levels and GCSEs are not fully absorbed into the diploma, it will fail to gain recognition among the people who really matter, the gatekeepers to employment and higher education. If admission tutors at the "selector" universities continue to base offers of places on specific grades in three individual subjects, the diploma will vanish because no one will need or want it. Students will concentrate on their main subjects and other studies will be of little importance to them.

Schools and colleges invested an enormous amount of energy in the Curriculum 2000 reforms, only to find that most universities gave no credit for extra AS subjects or for key skills. Having had their fingers thus burned so recently, heads and teachers will not be willing to embark on the latest half-hearted 14-19 reforms, such as the extended essay and the vocational diploma, if they think that the diploma will be of little or no use to their students. Welsh schools will use the Welsh baccalaureate and English selective schools may increasingly use the international baccalaureate.

Much appears to have been sacrificed on the twin altars of GCSE and A-level. There is no educational logic in maintaining a huge external examination industry at the age of 16 when most people remain in full-time education and training up to and beyond 18. The Government itself has said on several occasions that GCSEs should become a staging post and should cease to be an endpoint. The tragic conclusion must be that the Government is not, in fact, serious about creating a 14-19 continuum, for which secondary heads have been arguing for more than 15 years.

The debate about whether A-levels should stay misses the point. Neither Tomlinson nor anyone else has said A-levels should disappear immediately.

In the short and medium term, A-levels would be the building block for the advanced diploma. In the long term, when the name would disappear as the diploma became established, the standard and most of the content of A-levels would be firmly embedded into the diploma structure.

There must be the suspicion that the Government's obsession with league tables has influenced its decision, even though it would be perfectly possible to hold schools and colleges to account for their performance under a diploma system. League tables of performance at age 16 are a nonsense in a 14-19 system.

If the Government's response has been disappointing on the diploma, it is surely disastrous on assessment. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has just released a report putting the cost of the bloated external examinations system at pound;610 million per year. Everyone recognises that fundamental change is needed. Reducing the A-level modules from six to four is welcome, but merely rearranges the deck chairs on a titanic problem. The Tomlinson group recommended much more in-course assessment by teachers and adopted the Secondary Heads Association's proposal for a system of chartered assessors - experienced teachers externally accredited to carry out internal assessment to external standards. Moderated internal assessment is used in universities; why not also in schools? Not to adopt this recommendation demonstrates a woeful lack of confidence in the professionalism of teachers. There are some good aspects to the white paper, such as the drive to improve performance in maths and English and the slimming of the 11-14 curriculum. There is even a glimmer of hope that the diploma might be reconsidered in 2008 (just before another general election?) However, with no progress towards coherence, few reforms of assessment and no unified qualifications framework, the Government has failed the test that it set for Mike Tomlinson and his group.

Dr John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

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