Did A-level reforms fall victim to election fever?

February 25, 2005

David Melville, a member of the Tomlinson Group, mourns a lost opportunity for radical change

The Government's long-awaited White Paper on the comprehensive package of reforms proposed by Mike Tomlinson's working group has been published in the run-up to the general election.

Arguably, this is the worst time for radical changes to the established order.

Ironically, the Tomlinson committee started its work at what might be regarded as the most propitious time for change, after the 2002 "summer of discontent" for the A-level process.

Mr Tomlinson was called in to restore some semblance of confidence in the public examination system.

The A-level gold standard was decidedly tarnished and a mood for reform developed. This was sustained through a consultation phase and an interim report to ensure unprecedented universal acclaim on the final report's publication five months ago.

The educational establishment, particularly higher education, welcomed the Tomlinson package. The prospect of the over-arching diploma for all 18-year-olds contemplating university entry was seen as providing a route to the parts that the three A-level cocktail did not reach.

The prospect of more stretch in subject components and of more students qualified for higher education through vocational routes was applauded.

There was much optimism about what the advanced diploma could add to the current AS/A2 content.

This lay in the prospect of all diploma students having improved functional literacy and numeracy skills, the attributes associated with the core curriculum and especially those gained through the extended project and the benefits of a structured approach to wider activities.

This was the Tomlinson package that the higher education sector had signed up to.

So what of the White Paper? Surely we should welcome the emphasis on stretch at all levels, the overarching diploma at level 2 and the focus on functional skills as a requirement within GCSE maths, English and ICT?

Is not the implementation of an advanced vocational diploma a step forward? Well, up to a point. Tomlinson offered a comprehensive solution to that phase of education, 14 to 19, where we most spectacularly fail as a nation.

It is foolish to suggest that all reform packages must be implemented in full. But in almost all cases there are elements on which everything else depends.

For Tomlinson, this is the overarching diploma at advanced level.

It is this as the universal diet that takes us a huge step on the path to raising the status of vocational diplomas.

It is this that provides status for the whole multi-level diploma system.

It is this that potentially provides what is lacking in university entrants whether they come with three As or two Cs.

The White Paper leaves A levels intact, but whereas Tomlinson put them inside an advanced diploma, the Government places them firmly outside, as an alternative to the vocational diploma.

This means that the majority of those 18-year-olds aspiring to university study will take the minimum requirements, that is two or three A levels.

Those who claim that it is up to the institutions to insist on wider studies have forgotten about the overcrowded post-Curriculum 2000 syllabus and the history of many failed previous attempts to bolt on extra broadening components.

The main end users of the A-level system are the universities.

All who gain two A-level passes and wish to go to university now do so, leaving very few going directly into the jobs market. They are still the main discriminator for entrance, yet A levels have few friends in the higher education sector.

A survey published last week showed that almost half of head teachers in England had lost confidence in A levels and GCSEs and that, given the chance, 45 per cent would choose to follow the international baccalaureate. I would say such sentiments are stronger among academics.

A levels do not provide what is required of entrants in terms of a sound preparation for higher study. Remedial work is now the norm in first-year courses and the interest in alternative assessment measures continues.

Tomlinson picked up all these signals and more and provided the most far-reaching and promising reforms for a generation. But I fear we may be sacrificing an outstanding opportunity again - just as we did in the late Eighties - but this time on the altar of a general election. For Tomlinson, should we read Higginson?

David Melville is vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, chair of the Universities Vocational Awards Council and was a member of the Tomlinson Group.

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