Leave my mate alone!

10th October 2003 at 01:00
When School Standards Minister David Miliband was asked about the future of A-levels, the normally affable and loquacious young hopeful turned pale, as if he had seen a ghost. Then he started to flannel.

Reform of the 14-to-19 exam system was still a long way off, he said. Mike Tomlinson's group had produced a useful first draft, but no changes would be made without the approval of higher education and industry.

So far, the Tomlinson group's proposals for strengthening vocational qualifications and broadening the sixth-form curriculum have received a muted response.

Even Mr Miliband gave it a cautious welcome. But his pallor betrayed his fears: he will have to sell the group's final recommendations for a British baccalaureate to the public in a year's time, just before a general election.

At this point I have to declare an interest. I am old friend of Mike Tomlinson, so what follows is friendly advice rather than a searing critique.

First, Mike is right not to attempt to get rid of A-levels, but to reshape them from within. Most people know that A-levels are unsuited to the needs of the modern world, or most 16-to-18 year-olds. But public schools guard them like the many-headed dog Cerberus at the gates of Hades - and there is much barking and biting whenever anyone tries to take them away.

There are some serious flaws in Tomlinson's emerging framework. The president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science has already raised his voice on behalf of the supply of scientists and engineers. Modern linguists are fearful that languages will be marginalised.

As a scientist himself, Mike is aware of the pitfalls and he is looking at a unit system by which languages could be incorporated into the academic and vocational pathways.

He is right to try to ease the load on the exam system before its wheels fall off. Already one Secretary of State (Estelle Morris) and one Qualifications and Curriculum Authority chairman (Sir William Stubbs) have had to resign.

Timing will be important. Reform should ideally be sold to politicians just after the next election, not before.

The Tomlinson group will have to revisit the area of "study skills" and keep an eye on the Government's emerging National Skills Strategy, since an increasing number of his clientele will be adults in employment updating their skills part-time. He should beware the siren voices urging him to phase out GCSEs. They mark the end of the compulsory school curriculum for monitoring school and LEA performance over time.

Remember, Mike, that 50 per cent of youngsters now change establishments at 16, so GCSEs are vital in showing sixth-form or FE colleges how much youngsters have achieved in school. Continuity must be a key part of your strategy.

So good luck, old friend. Let's hope Charles Clarke is feeling thirsty and brave when you pass him a pint of your heady brew next July.

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