As GCSE and A-level candidates sweat and sneeze over this year's exam papers, Mike Tomlinson, the Government's favourite education troubleshooter, pops up with a scheme to all but abandon the lot. Even a year ago, the idea of a baccalaureate would have been anathema to a Prime Minister bent on upholding a "gold standard" dear to middle England. Then came the marking crisis which led to Estelle Morris's resignation as education secretary and the 50-year-old standard disintegrated beneath a pile of altered grade boundaries and outraged headteachers.
Later, a report from David Bell, the chief inspector, said that the changes to A-level, introduced three years ago, had not succeeded in their aim of broadening the sixth-form curriculum. Far from embracing a continental-style mix of arts and science, students were simply doing more of the same. Students were spending more time being tested and less being taught. And the pressure of exams was such that swotting was replacing the traditional lower-sixth pursuits of drama, Duke of Edinburgh awards and Saturday jobs.
Mr Tomlinson has taken the first step towards a saner examination regime.
His proposals will offer welcome breadth to the studies of the brightest pupils. More importantly, they envisage a school-leaving certificate which will be awarded to everyone whether they have pursued a technical, vocational or academic path between the ages of 14 and 19 - a real attempt to sweep away the barriers which have meant that only the top third of 18-year-olds earn a credible qualification. GCSE will inevitably go and, with it, much of the temptation to leave school at 16.
Best of all, Mr Tomlinson backs a revolution which will entrust teachers with the bulk of assessment and move away from an obsession with external testing which is unique in western Europe. He recognises that the community work, music and sport, which the present AS-level threatened, are as much part of education as physics and French. The surprise is not that the working group's plan is so radical but that it has taken us so long to see that the bac is the future.