Nervous Blair dodges talk of revolution
So, are GCSEs and A-levels to be replaced or not? It has been the question of the week, as ministers have appeared to take fright at the thought of potentially the most radical qualifications reforms for more than 50 years.
The spin being put on Monday's 207-page Tomlinson report by former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, and the Prime Minister was that the plans represent evolution, not revolution.
Existing qualifications were not being scrapped, they insisted: GCSEs and A-level courses would simply be absorbed into the new, all-embracing, four-level diploma system, to be introduced by 2014.
Reading Tomlinson, however, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, if it were implemented, GCSEs, in particular, would cease to exist as we know them.
"GCSE... currently creates an unnecessary and constraining burden on the system," it says. Pupils spend too much time preparing for exams and not enough on deeper learning.
Although current GCSE courses would form the basis of the proposed intermediate diploma aimed at 16-year-olds, they would in the main not be traditional, externally-assessed exams.
Youngsters would have to take external tests in functional literacy, numeracy and computer skills, each containing as little as half of the content of today's GCSEs.
Otherwise, teacher assessment, moderated by exam boards and supervised by a new breed of "chartered" assessor teacher would dominate. Grades for the intermediate diploma would be based mainly on teachers' marks for pupils'
regular school work. Formal coursework would cease and teachers would assess pupils throughout the course.
That means a teenager could go through school without doing any major external exams, other than in the core subjects, until they were on the verge of leaving at 18.
The report suggests that the number of courses taken could shrink as well.
Mr Tomlinson said teacher assessment would only be expanded if it were clear it would command public confidence, and not increase teacher workloads.
Teachers would use the extra time not spent teaching for exams to "inspire learners in a varied, relevant and interesting curriculum in ways that motivate them".
The report is unequivocal about the failings of the current assessment regime, attacking "mechanistic teaching to the test", repetitive coursework and courses that fail to stretch the most able. Its alternative is modelled along Continental lines, with Swedish internal assessment systems cited.
At advanced level, external exams would still dominate. But despite this, the idea of a largely teacher-assessed intermediate diploma appears too radical for ministers, who must now decide whether to accept the report's recommendations.
"GCSEs and A-levels will stay," Tony Blair assured a Confederation of British Industry conference in Birmingham. "So will externally-marked exams."
Mr Tomlinson might argue that some external tests - the core exams - will remain within the intermediate diploma, but the two positions are hard to reconcile.
Mr Clarke told the House of Commons that "a rigorous external assessment regime at 16 is critical". In a lengthy session, he never referred to teacher assessment.
Then David Miliband, school standards minister, said that the words "A-level" and "GCSE" would remain as the titles of courses - a suggestion Mr Tomlinson had rejected at the launch of his report.
Reaction to the report was mixed: while employers said the proposed reforms could be a distraction from the main task of improving literacy and numeracy, many of its recommendations won wide support.
Many in education welcomed plans for better vocational courses, clearer routes for young people into employment and training and dissertation-style research projects to stretch high achievers.
The report also effectively scraps the Curriculum 2000 reforms by suggesting that youngsters could take A2 exams in their final year of school without sitting AS-levels, and reducing the number of A-level modules from six to four - a proposal that will be accepted by ministers.
Language teachers also welcomed a new suggestion that every student should be given the chance to study a language beyond the age of 16.
Another new recommendation was that pupils under the age of 14 be given a taste of some skills assessed in the new diploma, including research study and team work.
The two largest teachers' unions cautiously backed the recommendations, but said ministers would have to ensure teacher assessment did not increase workloads.
The Specialist Schools Trust and the Independent Schools Council were also supportive, as were headteachers' leaders, though a poll carried out by the National College for School Leadership found 50 per cent against replacing GCSEs and A-levels.
Five heads interviewed by The TES were all supportive. Barbara Williams, headteacher of Norwood comprehensive in Lambeth, south London, said: "I certainly welcome more teacher assessment. Pupils seem to be tested almost non-stop from key stage 2 onwards." Graham Able, head of London's independent Dulwich college, said: "I think Tomlinson is a very positive move forward. I hope it will be implemented fully."
Ministers, however, seem reluctant to embrace the alternative vision the report spells out.