Qualifications, qualifications, qualifications
Published in: Daily Mail
After endless leaks, the interim Tomlinson plan to reform the shambles of the school examination system has finally been published. Having read it, one frankly doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Rarely has an official education report managed to parcel up so little that is sensible or relevant in so much convoluted, impenetrable prose.
The exercise was supposed to answer employers' concerns that many school-leavers don't possess even the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. It was supposed to resolve the paradox that, while pupils are buckling under the pressure of more and more exams, standards seem to be slipping. It was supposed to bring order to the chaos of exam grading, and end the universities' predicament of having to choose the most able from thousands of candidates with the same perfect grades.
At least Mike Tomlinson, a former Chief Inspector of Schools, has got one thing right. He has said that even young people with GCSEs, A-levels or a university place may still be illiterate or innumerate, so much so that some universities are having to run remedial classes for students. This official acknowledgement of the surreal extent of Britain's educational calamity punctures the insulting complacency of the schools minister David Miliband, who continues to claim that education standards are rising with all the fervour of a medieval monk insisting that the earth was flat.
But the Tomlinson report does not even begin to address the meltdown in education standards that has made public examinations more and more meaningless. Instead, it proposes to set up an eye-wateringly complicated system in which the purpose of obtaining a qualification would be merely to progress to another qualification, thus making them more meaningless than ever.
What these proposals amount to is not far short of the destruction of the very concept of examinations altogether.
Certainly, there are many things wrong with GCSEs and A-levels - not to mention AS levels, whose introduction was such a mistake. The main problem with these exams, however, is that their standards have been progressively lowered to enable more and more pupils to gain qualifications up to degree level, where standards are correspondingly being eroded too.
The correct response would have been to restore rigour to A-level and GCSE, as well as introduce high quality vocational training which remains scandalously neglected. As the independent school heads have said, what is needed is tougher marking and an end to coursework with its opportunities for plagiarism.
But instead, Tomlinson's new four-tiered national diploma for all pupils aged 14-19 would sweep all these exams away completely, and replace them by a system of credits which is as opaque as it is lacking in rigour.
Indeed, it replaces the very idea of measuring achievement - the essence of an exam - by measuring a pupil's progress instead. Thus, it suggests pupils might proceed from one level of the diploma to the next without even having to achieve a qualification at each level. All they would have to do is transfer their credits on a 'flexible ladder of progression'.
Its biggest boast is to introduce 'core skills' of English, maths and IT to address employers' complaints that new recruits are illiterate or innumerate. But here also there will be no actual test of attainment. Instead, the least able pupils will merely have to 'progress to achievement towards at least level 2 in mathematical skills, communication and IT'.
Behind this tortured syntax, it seems that pupils will merely have to work towards attaining skills which will not even be the equivalent of GCSE maths or English but will be something called 'functional' maths and 'communication' -less than basic skills which, although pupils don't even master these, will nevertheless enable them to claim 'credits' towards their diploma.
Even in the higher levels of the diploma, standards will be dramatically reduced by the inclusion of non-educational activities for assessment. Pupils will have to produce an 'extended project' or a 'personal challenge', which could include a video, a job, a part in the school play or going abseiling. Worthy as such activities may be, making them count towards examination success reduces the whole process to absurdity.
Indeed, the report takes an axe to the very concepts of testing and measuring educational achievement. It is preoccupied instead with being sensitive to the feelings of 'learners' and avoiding exposing them to anything too onerous, let alone the possibility of failure which appears to have been erased altogether.
In a typical piece of gobbledegook, it says the diploma 'enriches the learner's experience by using a variety of types of assessment', and 'avoids placing an undue burden on learners and teachers'. The truth all but hidden by such verbal obfuscation is that mixing credits across a bewildering variety of levels and topics, academic and vocational, will make it all but impossible to compare one pupil's achievement with another. So much for the proposed seven-point grading system at 18 to assist university admissions tutors.
The fairness of exams will vanish, as teachers perform more assessments of their own pupils. And employers, already frustrated by the erosion of reliable exam results on which to judge a job applicant, will have to study the 'transcript' of a school-leaver's whole academic performance - without which, the report candidly admits, the value of the diploma will be all but obscured. And yet the report has the gall to say the current system is 'confusing and lacks transparency'!
These proposals will betray children from top to bottom of the achievement ladder. By giving the lowest form of diploma to the least able, the new system will brand them as failures while once again doing nothing to bring about desperately needed improvements to the quality of vocational training.
By allowing the most able to take A-level early or even start a degree while at school, it disastrously confuses education with qualification. Exams simply measure what pupils have learned. If they spend fewer years being educated to a given level, they will learn less and the value of the qualification goes down. If A-levels or degree courses are so easy that many pupils can take them at much younger ages, those standards must be too low.
The purpose of education should be 'knowledge for its own sake'. From this report, it seems this has now been altered to 'qualifications for their own sake'. But one of the causes of our education meltdown is ministers' obsession with targets to 'prove' standards are rising. Hence the pressure for more university students, higher exam grades -and more and more meaningless qualifications.
In an interview, Mr Tomlinson said the problem lay not with pupils or teachers but with the current exam system. But this is like blaming the existence of law for the crime rate.
He is wrong. The problem lies within a poisoned educational bloodstream. It lies in the retreat from the transmission of knowledge; in the obsession with not hurting pupils' feelings so no-one can be allowed to fail; in the transfer of authority from teacher to 'learner'; and in the confusion of education with qualifications, of which this report is such a disappointing illustration.