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Sir Mike's brave quest comes to a bitter end

Ministers hail new vocational diploma but it's a far cry from what Tomlinson wanted. Warwick Mansell and Joseph Lee report

New vocational diplomas will be introduced in schools and colleges from 2008 under plans to raise the "scandalously" low proportion of English teenagers staying on in education past the age of 16.

The work-related qualification is the central proposal in a White Paper, which ministers said would transform secondary education, published in response to the 18-month Tomlinson inquiry.

There will also be a new diploma for 16-year-olds. To get it they will have to get five Cs or better at GCSE, including at least a C in both English and maths. This measure of success will also be used in league tables next year.

GCSE English and maths will be redesigned to make it impossible to get a C without having mastered "functional" aspects of the subjects, said the paper. But there will be no basic English or maths exams, as Tomlinson wanted.

There has been widespread dismay at ministers' decision to reject Sir Mike Tomlinson's central recommendation: a diploma including both vocational and academic courses. A-levels and GCSEs, which he wanted scrapped, will continue alongside the new vocational diploma.

Union leaders, educationists and bodies including the Independent Schools Council said the White Paper represented a missed opportunity to put vocational and academic courses on an equal footing.

David Bell, chief inspector, said: "Continuing with the current GCSE and A-level structure carries the risk of continuing the historic divide between academic and vocational courses which has ill-served too many young people."

The Government's 2003 green paper, which set up the Tomlinson review, said it should move to a "unified qualifications structure suitable for all young people". But this has been rejected.

In fact Sir Mike's proposals, which had broad support, were largely ignored as Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, set out Labour's reforms. Her predecessor, Charles Clarke, had promised the White Paper would assess Tomlinson against five tests, but these were missing from Wednesday's document.

Instead, it focused on streamlining the current 3,500 vocational courses for 14 to 19-year-olds to three-level diplomas in 14 subjects by 2015.

Subjects will include health and social care, manufacturing and sport and leisure. Employers will be closely involved in course design and universities encouraged to accept the advanced diploma as an entry qualification.

A fresh emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy was the paper's other main theme. To gain one of the new diplomas, youngsters will have to pass courses in functional English and maths, as well as completing work experience and taking GCSEs and A-levels deemed relevant to the diploma.

Ministers said they wanted to stretch able pupils by encouraging them to take GCSEs, AS and A-levels early and start university courses at school.

They also accepted Tomlinson's recommendation to require A-level and diploma students to do extended research projects, and for A-levels to include harder questions.

There were few concessions, however, to a key Tomlinson concern: the excessive number of exams at secondary level.

Ministers said they would review the place of coursework at GCSE and cut the number of A-level modules from six to four. There will also be a major review of key stage 3.

Ms Kelly said: "These proposals are a radical package; they will transform education." She said dropping Tomlinson's all-encompassing diploma had been her own decision. "You don't scrap what's good when you reform a system, you build on it." she said.

This contrasts with Tomlinson's contention that GCSEs in particular create an "unnecessary and constraining burden on the system". This week, the former chief inspector said that A-levels were "strangling scholarship".

A string of surveys have found most heads and teachers back Tomlinson.

However, one for Teachers' TV this week found professionals more split.

Disappointed union leaders were clutching at the promise of a 2008 review that will look at measures ministers could take to improve A-levels.

Colleges dismayed, FE Focus 3

White Paper main points

New three-level "specialised" diplomas to be introduced in 14 subject areas, including engineering, public service, and hospitality and catering, from 2008

* Pupils will have to pass maths and English GCSE, and any "relevant" GCSEs and A-levels to qualify for these new diplomas

* A separate new diploma to be awarded to pupils who pass five GCSEs at C or better, but these must include English and maths

* This qualification to become the main measure by which schools are judged in league tables by 2008

* Review of the place of coursework at GCSE

* Number of A-level modules to be reduced from six to four

* A-levels to incorporate harder questions set at the level of existing Advanced Extension Awards

* Students to complete an "extended project" at A-level and at higher levels of the diploma

* Universities to be given pupils' grades on each A-level paper

* Specialist schools to be awarded an extra pound;30,000 each to become centres of excellence in vocational education

* Major review of key stage 3 curriculum

Tomlinson main points

* New diploma at four levels: entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced, from 2014

* Diploma to incorporate all existing exams, including GCSEs, A-levels, vocational courses and apprenticeships

* All diplomas to have compulsory "core" of functional literacy, numeracy and computer skills, an extended research or practical project and optional modules modelled on GCSEs, A-levels and vocational courses

* Diplomas to be awarded on a credit basis, that pupils gain for passing each course

* Pupils take diplomas when they are ready rather than at a set age

* All levels of diploma below advanced assessed mainly by teachers

* Both diploma and courses within it to be graded

* Advanced Extension Awards to be incorporated into new advanced diplomas, with A+ and A++ grades to distinguish between the most able

* "Wider activities" such as sport, arts, community work recognised in the diploma

* Electronic transcripts, setting out details of students' achievements in all courses, to be made available

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