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Something for everyone

The brief for Mike Tomlinson's working group was to overhaul the entire education system for 14 to 19-year-olds and provide something for everyone.

For pupils now failed by the GCSE system, the new qualifications are intended to reduce numbers dropping out at 16, address problems with basic skills, and improve the quality and status of vocational qualifications.

At the same time, it is hoped to challenge brighter students, offering greater depth and breadth of learning, while reducing the burden of assessment on teachers and making the whole system easier to understand.

To do that, the Tomlinson report proposes a single overarching diploma, covering all existing qualifications, including GCSEs, A-levels, apprenticeships and vocational qualifications.

It will be available at four levels, foundation, entry, intermediate and advanced, with the first two intended for students who currently leave with no qualifications.

Intermediate and advanced level are equivalent to GCSE and A-level, but students will be encouraged to take them whenever they are ready.

Unlike similar systems such as the International Baccalaureate, diplomas can either be open, giving students a free choice of subjects, or they can choose one of about 20 diploma titles.

Those will be sub-divided up to 100 times, allowing students to gain qualifications such as "science and mathematics (natural sciences)".

But all pupils will have to show mastery of the core subjects of functional literacy and communication, functional maths and information and communications technology, which will account for 40 of the 180 points needed for the diploma.

Coursework for all subjects will be abolished and replaced with an extended project, worth 20 points, which could be anything from a traditional essay to a piece of music.

At all levels except advanced, the report recommends that grades be mainly determined by teacher assessment.

The diploma will be graded as a fail, pass, merit or distinction, with the highest grade reserved for the top 10 per cent. Individual subjects will also be graded on the same four-point scale, except at advanced level.

New A+ and A++ grades will be available in the advanced exams, to incorporate the existing Advanced Extension Awards.

Extra-curricular activities. will not be compulsory, but they can be recorded on the electronic transcript that will detail each pupil's achievements.

As well as the academic paths, vocational qualifications will be included in the diploma, with both being promised the same status.

Mr Tomlinson conceded that previous attempts to put the two on a par had failed to convince a sceptical public and employers.

The report recommends that within four years, coursework should be replaced by an extended project; stand-alone exams in the core subjects of literacy, maths, and information and communications technology be introduced; and GCSEs be increasingly assessed by teachers.

Of course all this will only happen if the Government agrees - and it will wait until 2005 before outlining its response.

Opinion, 23

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