Playing politics with our exams

25th February 2005 at 00:00
What has the Government thrown away by rejecting the main recommendations of its own inquiry into 14-19 qualifications? If you believe the conclusions of Sir Mike Tomlinson's painstaking 18-month investigation, backed by most in education, an awful lot.

Central to Sir Mike's report was a devastating analysis of the current system. Pupils take too many exams which leaves them little time for extra-curricular activities and deeper study.

His diploma would have addressed this problem in several ways. Exams would cease to dominate, becoming largely teacher-assessed and based on routine schoolwork until the advanced diploma at 18. This would have cut the strain on an overloaded exam system, recently estimated to be costing pound;610 million annually.

Teenagers would have had time to study their chosen subjects in depth, and gained recognition for extra-curricular activities and skills valued by employers, such as the ability to make presentations and work in teams.

The diploma also sought, bravely, to end snobbery towards vocational exams by bringing them into the diploma alongside their academic counterparts.

The White Paper is a slap in the face for the inquiry and those who backed it. It overlooks Tomlinson's central point about over-assessment. One can see why, politically, it would be embarrassing for Ruth Kelly to own up to failings in secondary exams after eight years of Labour government.

Sir Mike's plans, which some termed confusing and over-complicated, were not without their weaknesses. Ministers may have worried about scrapping GCSEs in particular as they would no longer have been able to gauge the performance of 11-16 secondaries through the GCSE league tables. Yet if the proposals really benefited pupils, how can it be right that measuring the performance of their schools was given priority?

The charge is that the Government rejected Tomlinson because it did not want to go into the election being accused by the Tories and the media of scrapping A-levels. To critics, it looks like huge benefits for pupils are being sacrificed for short-term political gain.

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