Overhaul of exams begins

6th December 2002 at 00:00
The inquiry into this summer's A-level grades fiasco has reported back with demands for confidence-building changes. Warwick Mansell reports

THE Government was this week asked to accept a root-and-branch overhaul of its examination system in the wake of this year's A-level regrading fiasco.

Mike Tomlinson's official inquiry into the summer's chaos recommended an array of changes designed to restore confidence in the regime.

Most far-reaching were a series of long-term proposals including:

* Splitting the current A-level into separate AS and A2 qualifications. Students, Mr Tomlinson said, would not necessarily have to take an AS exam if they went on to sit an A2.

* Students to apply to university after getting their A-level results.

* A six-term school year.

The former chief inspector of schools' 57-page report suggested separate qualifications at AS and A2 to simplify a system which "as it stands... is unlikely ever to attract the levels of public and professional understanding which would prevent recurring confusion and dissatisfaction".

Most teachers and students felt that the time schools spent on exams, particularly in the lower-sixth, meant that they were cutting down on other "valuable" activities, from sport to drama.

And Mr Tomlinson called on ministers to reduce the number of external exams, a point enthusiastically backed by Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Radical changes to the structure of the school year should be considered, the report said, because examining boards were having to rush the marking, grading and issuing of results.

As a result, next summer ministers should put back the publication of A-level results by up to a fortnight. In the longer term, students should start their university careers a month later, in late October, having taken their A-levels in the fifth term of a six-term year.

Mr Tomlinson said the biggest threat to next year's exams was the shortage of examiners. Only 6,000 of the 50,000 needed have so far been lined up and Dr Boston was concerned that teachers, many left "jaundiced" by this year's problems, would not come forward.

Concerned about destabilising the system again, Mr Tomlinson said that none of the more far-reaching changes should be launched within the next five years. Education Secretary Charles Clarke said the Government would not pronounce on any long-term reform until it publishes its plans on changes to 14-19 education next month.

But he has accepted some more immediate proposals. Ministers are to give the QCA pound;6 million for an examiner recruitment drive. Dr Boston wants a network of exam processing centres, in which thousands of markers would work from 9am to 8pm.

The report was broadly welcomed. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "It stands to put the system on a much more secure footing." Mr Tomlinson also proposed that an "appropriately qualified" person be appointed to report on the grade-awarding process. Mr Clarke this week confirmed this watchdog as Mike Tomlinson.

Later Mr Tomlinson faced accusations from MPs on the education select committee that he had let off everyone involved in the drama "scot-free".

Leader, 22


* All three boards to have the same entry format for exams. Accepted.

* High-quality training for examiners linked to career development.


* Statement to clarify the roles of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Department for Education and Skills and boards. Accepted.

* Independent committee to monitor examination standards. Accepted.

* Simplification of rules governing re-sits and "cashing in" of AS-level units. Accepted.

* More emphasis given to examiners' professional judgment on quality of pupils' work. Accepted.

* Publication of A-level results to be put back by up to two weeks. Under consideration.

* Better use of computers in exams. Under consideration.

* De-coupling of AS and A2 exams to create two separate qualifications.

Under consideration.

* University entrance after students know A-level results. Under consideration.

* Reduction in number of exams students take. Under consideration.

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