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School reform: a recipe for more chaos?


When Labour came to power, it promised us "education, education, education". Seven years later, said the Daily Mail, "it has delivered only failure, failure, failure". The extent of the damage was made painfully clear this week when Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, published his proposals for reforming secondary-school teaching and assessment in England. Calling for the "biggest shake-up in secondary education for 50 years", Tomlinson warned that many pupils - including those with good A-levels - were leaving school without proper numeracy or literacy skills. There are other problems: Britain has one of the highest post-16 drop-out rates in the developed world; vocational courses are still undervalued; and grade inflation means that even gifted pupils have trouble standing out from the herd.

The good news, said The Daily Telegraph, is that someone is finally doing something about it. Tomlinson's report contains some excellent suggestions. He wants to replace GCSEs and A-levels with a baccalaureate-style diploma. All pupils will be required to reach a basic standard in maths, communications skills and IT, after which they will be free to choose whether they take an academic or non-academic path towards their diploma. The highest grades will be much harder to achieve than the current As and A*s, making it easier for universities and employers to sift through candidates.

It may sound good in theory, said Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail, but fight through the "impenetrable prose" of the actual report and you won't know "whether to laugh or cry". What's needed is simplicity and rigour: what Tomlinson proposes is "an eye-wateringly complicated system" which would virtually do away with "the very concept of examination". The four-tiered diploma would replace exams with a system of "credits" on a "flexible ladder of progression". Even in the core subjects, pupils would not have to pass an actual test of attainment: they would merely have to show that they have "progressed to achievement towards" a certain level. Older pupils would have to undertake an "extended project" or "personal challenge" - such as producing a video or going abseiling - to show off their communication skills. This, together with a "transcript" of the pupil's entire school career, would go to university admissions tutors to help them choose candidates. Goodness knows, they will need help: mixing credits across such a bewildering range of topics and levels will make it almost impossible to measure pupils against each other. If you think the current system is a mess, brace yourself for the future.


THE WEEK 21 February 2004

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