Teenage timetable goes back to basics

Wide-ranging response to Tomlinson forces secondaries to target maths and English, while introducing vocational diplomas, reports Warwick Mansell.

A radical overhaul of secondary teaching, with the introduction of new vocational diplomas, tougher A-level questions and basic skills tests, was unveiled by the Government this week.

Over the next three years, teachers and support staff will have to implement a raft of reforms, affecting every phase of post-primary education in England.

The announcement follows an evaluation of secondary education by Ofsted which criticised secondaries for doing too little to help children who leave primaries below the expected level in English and maths.

At key stage 3, it is proposed that the curriculum be freed from national prescription by 2008. This will allow more time to provide "catch-up classes" for pupils who are struggling with the 3Rs, and to tailor provision to stretch higher achievers.

In non-core subjects such as history, geography and languages, new guidance on teacher assessment system will be introduced, helping staff to come to judgements about what level each pupil has reached in each subject.

At KS4, new exams testing the "functional" aspects of English, maths and information and communications technology, such as the ability to work out percentages, will be piloted from 2007. Every pupil will eventually have to take the tests to gain a C or better in GCSEs in each subject.

By 2008, ministers will also introduce five new vocational diploma courses to improve work-related education for 14- to 19-year-olds. They expect 50,000 youngsters will embark on the diplomas and that by 2013, every teenager will be offered the chance to take a work-related diploma in one of 14 subjects, as an alternative to GCSEs and A-levels.

Ministers say schools, colleges and employers will have to work together to teach the new exams, and the Government has pledged to train 5,000 new staff to teach them. In addition, by 2008, every council will have to provide a prospectus to pupils at all the schools it serves, setting out which courses are available to them in their area.

Finally, A-levels will be redesigned to introduce new, tougher questions that help universities select between high-achievers, and to introduce an extended project.

The changes are outlined in a 100-page paper which is the Government's detailed response to last year's Tomlinson report on secondary reform. That called for a new combined vocationalacademic diploma to replace GCSEs and A-levels by 2014. Ministers rejected that central recommendation, but accepted much of Tomlinson's other advice.

One key Government adviser said the changes would be at least as complicated as those proposed by Tomlinson. Ministers have said they will challenge teachers.

The paper provides few details of how the changes will be funded. Some Pounds 110 million has already been announced for change at KS4, and pound;335m for KS3, by 2008.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said schools would need convincing that they would have enough cash to implement the reforms, and that GCSE league tables emphasising competition rather than collaboration between schools were also a problem.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Something needs to be done about 14-19 education, and the Government is making a serious attempt to do that. But there is an awful lot of detailed work to be done yet, and 2008 is not long away."

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

"14-19 Education and Skills Implementation Plan": www.dfes.gov.ukpublications14-19implementationplan

Key changes

* League tables changed from January 2006 to put more emphasis on English and maths

* Functional skills tests in maths, English and ICT trialled from September 2007

* KS3 curriculum to be cut back by 2008

* New vocational diplomas introduced from 2008. All pupils to be offered a choice of 14 diplomas by 2013

* Trials of new A-levels with tougher questions to be launched in September 2006, for possible change from 2008

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