PROPOSALS for the most radical redesign of the qualifications system in 50 years were published this week, with recommendations that a baccalaureate-style diploma should replace conventional A-levels and GCSEs.
Radical change is necessary, said a government taskforce headed by former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson, because young people are still leaving school without basic literacy and numeracy.
Too many youngsters are allowed to embark on A-levels and specialist work-related courses without any guarantee that they have the core "generic" skills valued by employers and universities.
The proposed diploma, to be introduced, said Mr Tomlinson, in not less than five years, would have four levels, from entry to advanced, in a single structure embracing vocational as well as academic courses which would see assessment burdens on students cut.
The report, which sets out the initial thoughts of the taskforce before it reports back finally to ministers next summer, was broadly welcomed by teachers' and headteachers' unions. The Government was cautious, emphasising that the inquiry still has a year to run and that any reform would have to be thoroughly tested.
However, the Conservatives said the report "would do nothing to restore confidence in A-levels".
Damian Green, shadow education secretary, said: "The suggestion of mixing academic and non-academic in a single diploma will leave universities and employers confused about the standards the diploma represents and would further weaken confidence in our exam system."
The 48-page report says the existing system offers students the chance to study in great depth at A-level.
It said: "For many young people, the current arrangements in which GCSE is the main basis for teaching, learning and accrediting key skills for 14 to 16-year-olds are not effective. Too many are subsequently channelled towards relatively specialised post-16 programmes without having gained the skills which are essential to support progression or to meet the needs of subsequent employers."
At a London press conference, Mr Tomlinson emphasised that requiring pupils to reach minimum standards in these areas would be a key to the qualification gaining acceptance by universities.
Higher education would have an interest in students being assessed in areas other than their specialist subjects. This was currently the approach of the International Baccalaureate, taken in a few schools and recognised by universities.
Mr Tomlinson said: "At the moment, if you have got an A-level, no-one knows that you have got the English skills and the numeracy skills needed to progress."
The Government had attempted to address this by running key skills programmes for the over-16s. But these were often seen as "remedial and irrelevant", said the report.
The task force is not proposing making maths and English compulsory to 18.
But students might be required to achieve the subjects to intermediate level, though possibly not through a conventional GCSE-style course.
Other aspects of a "compulsory core"may include teamwork skills, research projects or an oral presentation.
The report will go out to consultation until mid-October. The task force will spend from now until January working up detailed proposals for how the diploma might work.
* Compulsory core: maths, English, computing, science, teamwork
* Specialist academic or work-related courses
* Supplementary courses: critical thinking, research skills, courses such as statistics for geographers, languages for people studying leisure and tourism
* Sports, arts, volunteering work recognised
* More cross-curricular work
* Less external assessment
* Less coursework
* More teacher assessment
* Courses for most academic students to be more demanding than A-level.