Another Reform, Another Generation of Children Betrayed by the 'Prizes for All' Culture Poisoning Our Educational Bloodstream

Daily Mail (London), February 18, 2004 | Go to article overview

Another Reform, Another Generation of Children Betrayed by the 'Prizes for All' Culture Poisoning Our Educational Bloodstream


Byline: MELANIE PHILLIPS

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 to 19 would sweep all these exams away completely, and replace them with 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. …

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