‘The time for reform has come’, said Mike Tomlinson, leader of the government-commissioned working party on the future of England’s schools examinations system, as he produced his interim report on 14-19 education.
What, again? Over the past few years England’s exams have undergone more reform than the pupils sitting them have had hot dinners. Each one has had the effect of diminishing the standard of work expected from young people, as a challenging curriculum and demanding tests have given way to content and assessment designed to put children under less pressure. It’s not yet more exam reform that is needed, but higher educational standards – and an end to the obsession with qualifications altogether.
Mike Tomlinson has announced that the present system of GCSEs and A-levels will undergo a ‘thorough overhaul’ and ‘system-wide change’, to be replaced with four-stage diplomas covering everything from ‘core skills’ in maths, communication and ICT, to higher-level academic and vocational qualifications. The aim is to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ qualification towards a more flexible method of assessment, which will judge pupils on their strengths, and at the time when they are best capable of taking the qualification (1).
These proposals have been met with some well-deserved criticism. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University, branded the proposals ‘horrendously complicated’ and ‘deeply confusing’ (2). Indeed, if you find today’s mishmash of SATs, GCSEs, AS-levels, A-levels and many different types of vocational qualification bewildering enough, try getting your head around a four-part interlocking structure in which pupils participate at varying times from 14 to 19, taking any combination of vocational and academic subjects, for which they are assessed in a variety of means from ‘personal challenges’ to their involvement in voluntary work. This may not be a ‘one size fits all’ qualification, simply because no two children will get the same qualification.
Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail columnist and author of the powerful critique All Must Have Prizes (3), complains that Tomlinson’s desire to replace ‘the very idea of measuring achievement – the essence of an exam – by measuring a pupil’s progress instead’ betrays a preoccupation with ‘being sensitive to the feelings of “learners” and avoiding exposing them to anything too onerous, let alone the possibility of failure’ (4). One of Tomlinson’s big ideas is that, instead of having assessments that pupils sit at fixed ages and points during their schooling, progression through the four levels of diplomas is ‘ability related’. Pupils will be assessed according to what they can do when they can do it.