Tests revamp goes right to the core

26th March 2010 at 00:00
Tories' Sykes review reveals its radical ideas for overhauling qualifications and assessments

A conservative-commissioned report released this week sets out plans for a complete overhaul of the qualifications and assessment system.

The review, led by Sir Richard Sykes, a former rector of Imperial College London, lists 21 recommendations to radically transform examinations in England's schools.

Chief among the proposals are plans to move away from the current system of modularised A-levels, returning instead to a more "traditional" testing method that would take place at the end of a two-year syllabus.

Sir Richard said there was "too much time spent on examinations" and under the new plans schools and pupils would have more time for "deep" thought and learning.

Universities should have "considerable input into the content and structure of examinations" as they will be the "main users" of A-levels.

The review proposes a US-style SAT admissions test that would sit alongside A-levels to evaluate a student's general English and mathematics skills.

The report says: "A British university admissions test, which tested general English and general mathematics skills, would allow them (universities) to obtain a profile of different subjects in terms of candidates' SAT scores, and also to evaluate individual students."

Under proposals put forward by the Sykes review group, GCSEs would be radically reformed. The number of subjects each pupil takes would be "greatly reduced", concentrating on the core subjects of English and maths.

Schools would not be prevented from entering pupils into more qualifications, but the number and range of subjects taken would be chosen with the student's interests at heart, the review says.

Furthermore, the current measure of five A* to C grades, including English and maths, should be abandoned, the report says, as it focuses too heavily on the CD borderline. The review calls for a move away from league tables altogether.

The recommendations would prevent schools putting forward pupils in subjects that "lack rigour" in order to inflate its position in league tables.

The Conservatives have already announced plans to remove vocational courses from league tables. Schools offering vocational courses would instead be asked to use destination data that provides students and parents with an idea of a school's prestige.

Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove backed the majority of recommendations set out in the document, adding that the report provided a "compelling argument". But he distanced himself from dropping league tables and the term "GCSE".

Mr Gove said: "I agree we need to reform the way schools are held accountable for the performance of children at the age of 16, so schools are no longer tempted to enter students for qualifications merely to inflate league table rankings.

"Critically, I think we also need to see how we can develop a much sharper focus on what happens to students when they leave school. Destination data, which tells us if students are moving into high quality apprenticeships, satisfying jobs or good college and university courses, will give parents real-world information about how well schools are doing," he added.

But the proposals have been criticised by educationists who believe the plans will lead to more unwanted change to a system already in flux.

Exam board Cambridge Assessment described the idea of a SAT-style university entrance exam as "ill-conceived", and claimed it would lead to duplication of A-levels.

The group said it would "likely encourage narrow teaching to the test, add to the burden of assessment and give rise to a cramming industry".

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said his members would welcome slimming down GCSE assessment, but called for a stop to more change at A-level.

"I would hope a Conservative government would wait for an evaluation of the current A-level before starting talk of ditching the exam before it has even started," he said.

The Liberal Democrats' education spokesman David Laws accused his opposite number of hypocrisy, stating that the Tories' plans would lead to more political interference.

Mr Laws said: "The Conservatives can't have it both ways, one minute they talk about freeing schools from meddling politicians and then they announce a return to so-called traditional exams."

Sir Richard's recommendations

All higher and further education institutions to publish lists on qualifications they accept and prefer

- Beyond English and maths, employers, FE colleges and universities should determine the form and content of qualifications

- Government should consider adopting a US-style SAT test

- A-level should no longer be modular

- Independent commission should revise curriculum every five or ten years.

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