A-level reform may head up decade of change

October 22, 2004

Changes to A levels that would help universities pick the brightest candidates could occur at the start of a decade of reforms of 14-to-19 education, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, revealed this week, writes Paul Hill.

Mr Clarke will publish a White Paper in the new year spelling out the Government's response to Mike Tomlinson's proposals for a diploma that would absorb GCSEs, A levels and vocational qualifications by the year 2014.

Mr Clarke told The Times Higher that measures to help universities - such as an electronic transcripts of candidates' performance and a "dissertation-like" project at A level - might be "suitable for early implementation".

Asked how quickly the Government would act, Mr Clarke said: "I won't answer the question about how quick is quick. But there will be an action programme that takes aspects of what Tomlinson proposes and implements certain things earlier than others."

Mr Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, said that if ministers accepted his recommendations in early 2005, then key changes could be made within three to five years.

More detailed information about student performance and the criteria for extended projects could be in place by 2007-08. Trialling an A*/A**grade at A level could follow a year later, if ministers saw a need for grade changes.

But the Government was accused of sending confused messages about Mr Tomlinson's recommendations, after Tony Blair told a meeting of business leaders that A levels and GCSEs would not be scrapped.

But Mr Tomlinson did recommend that existing qualifications should "migrate" into his diploma, meaning the end of A levels and GCSEs as "standalone" qualifications.

Mr Tomlinson's report was broadly welcomed by vice-chancellors and head-teachers. But it was attacked by the Confederation of British Industry, which questioned whether the proposals would raise students' literacy and numeracy.

The Royal Society is concerned that science had been sidelined by Tomlinson.

Sir John Enderby, RS vice-president, said: "Clearly, if the place of science in education is not assured, the Government risks being unable to deliver on its recently published ten-year investment plan for science and innovation in the UK."

Conservative leader Michael Howard called for the retention of A levels but said that only fixed proportions of A-level students should receive A grades and state schools should be allowed to offer O levels rather than GCSEs.

David Miliband, School Standards Minister, told a conference run by the Higher Education Policy Institute that the Government intended to "knit together" the strands of 14-to-19 reform and the recommendations of Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, on fair admissions, a post-qualification applications process for higher education and the trialling of university aptitude tests.

Mr Tomlinson said that the extra information about candidates' performance produced by his reforms might remove the need for extra testing.

Professor Schwartz told The Times Higher : "A lot of us think that we'd rather not increase the assessment burden if it's not needed - so if Tomlinson means we don't need extra testing, let's not do it."

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