Exam reforms edge nearer

June 25, 2004

Key elements of the planned ten-year reform of GCSE and A levels could be brought forward to help universities distinguish between the best candidates and to deter institutions from setting their own admissions tests, The Times Higher has learnt.

The working group on 14-19 reform, chaired by former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson, is debating whether to propose "early wins" for higher education in the gradual move towards a school diploma system.

The group may advise ministers to introduce measures "within four to five years" that would give universities more information about each candidate.

It is understood that the group is concerned that delaying the introduction of some reforms - such as greater differentiation between the top A-level grades and a detailed "transcript" of students' performance - could see more higher education institutions set up their own admissions tests.

From this autumn, a biomedical admissions test will be taken by some 5,000 applicants to Oxford University Medical School, Cambridge University medical and veterinary schools, the Royal Free and University College London Medical School, Bristol University's Veterinary School and the Royal Veterinary College.

Echoing concerns raised by the National Association of Headteachers, one working-group source told the Times Higher that if institutions set their own admissions tests, it would undermine the proposed new diploma before it was established.

Universities UK has already urged the working group to introduce measures to help institutions differentiate between the brightest applicants as a matter of urgency.

In its interim report in February, the 14-19 working group proposed gradually absorbing GCSE and A levels into a four-level diploma over the course of ten years or more.

The new diploma would include specialist units in particular subjects and compulsory core units that would focus on literacy, numeracy and information technology skills.

The core skills element would help to address the problem of students entering university without basic communication and maths skills, according to the working group's interim report.

The final report of the group is due to be published in October.

It is understood that the final report may be followed by smaller working groups that undertake "technical work" on different aspects of the proposed reforms.

Mr Tomlinson said this week that A-level students may be set more open-ended questions in future rather than "mechanistic" questions that fail to test the full range of students' capabilities.

"We are concerned that, with the current dominance of closed or semi-closed questions, we are not giving students the chance to demonstrate all that they know," he said.

Such a move might also mean that major structural changes in examinations and the grading system will not be necessary, he added. "If the work that is being done shows that we can address the differentiation and selection issue without having a major upheaval, then we would like to do that," he said.

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