Leader: Patience is a virtue

October 22, 2004

David Eastwood gives the optimistic view of the Tomlinson report on 14-to-19 education, as befits a member of the committee, and many in higher education will give the report a similarly fair wind. Although opinion is naturally divided on the detail, there is widespread support for the direction it is taking - rooted in a belief that the current A-level system has had its day and that more needs to be done to engage those who drop out of education in unacceptable numbers at 16 and 17.

There are many questions to be answered, however, before we can be confident that this diploma blueprint will prove more workable than its discarded predecessors. Whether or not the A-level title survives is the most minor of these; what matters is content. As Mike Tomlinson is well aware, simply packing academic and vocational subjects into a single system will not automatically produce that elusive parity of esteem. Vocational courses must have sufficient currency among employers to lead to worthwhile jobs while justifying their credit rating in the examination system. A levels or their successors must be more demanding, partly but not exclusively to differentiate more effectively between candidates for higher education.

The most sensible aspect of the report is its timescale. The committee recognises (and ministers accept) that extra grades at the top of A level are an urgent requirement, but there is time to work out how best to implement the more fundamental reforms. If there are no GCSE grades and no AS levels, for example, how will universities gauge the likely strength of applicants? What standard of English and maths will be needed to achieve the advanced diploma? There are obvious dangers in taking ten years to produce the answers, but Curriculum 2000 showed what damage can be done with hasty changes on this scale.

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