Overhaul school exams - education chief

PAUL HILL EXCLUSIVE: A-levels and GCSEs should be overhauled to allow teenagers to sit fewer but tougher exams at school, the new national head of higher education told the EDP last night .

PAUL HILL

A-levels and GCSEs should be overhauled to allow teenagers to sit fewer but tougher exams at school, the new national head of higher education told the EDP last night .

Prof David Eastwood - who will step down as UEA vice-chancellor this summer to take charge of England's £6bn university funding body - added his voice to growing pressure on ministers to reform the school exam system.

Prof Eastwood called for the introduction of new grades at A-level - such as A* and A** - to help universities and employers spot the brightest pupils and new vocational qualifications to be introduced to give less academic youngsters the chance to learn practical skills.

Pupils should be given more time at school to understand subjects rather than just learning how to pass exams, he added.

But the academic - who will take up the top job at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) in September - also hinted that the £3,000 limit on university tuition fees would have to be increased when ministers looked again at the issue in 2009.

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He stressed that any rise in fees would have to be matched by a rise in the grants, bursaries and scholarships paid to students from working class backgrounds.

The calls for school exam reform came as the government announced that five new vocational diplomas - in health, construction, media, engineering and information technology - will be created from 2008 for 14 to 19-year-olds.

Schools minister Jim Knight said: “The diploma will offer employers what they need: young people with superb reading, writing, maths and IT skills, who are enthusiastic, willing to learn and come equipped with an understanding of their sector.”

But when asked about the future of A-levels, Prof Eastwood said: “The A-level is a qualification that was developed during the second world war, so I think the time has come to move on.

“The question is, what do we value in A-levels? The answer is that we want high quality academic - and vocational - qualifications that are stretching and exciting. It's maintaining the stretch and the quality of the qualification that is important, not the label on the tin.”

Prof Eastwood - who was a member of the Tomlinson commission on A-level and GCSE reform last year - added that young people were being “over-assessed” under the current exam regime.

The commission, led by the former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson, recommended that current exams be “absorbed” into a new diploma system - although the idea was rejected by Downing Street.

Earlier this month, Ken Boston, the government's examinations regulator, also called for A-levels questions to be tougher and a new grading system to be introduced.

Last night Prof Eastwood said: “Do I think there were things in the Tomlinson analysis that were right? Yes I do. Do I think we have solved the 14-19 education issues? No I don't.

“I think there is evidence when you look at what's happened around A-levels and vocational education - and an ever larger number of schools showing interest in the international baccalaureate, for example - all of which says we haven't yet got this right.”

Prof Eastwood's comments about university tuition fees may add fuel to the simmering discontent on the Labour backbenches.

The government faced its largest rebellion since 1997 when it proposed increasing university fees from £1,175 a year to £3,000 this September - despite offering to reintroduce student grants and create new bursaries and scholarships for the poorest students.

Prof Eastwood said: “For a variety of reasons, the £3,000 cap was the politically-feasible option in 2004.

“It does put real and welcome additional resources into universities, but it doesn't solve the funding problem for teaching.

“When the review is done, I'm reasonably confident that the change in the fee regime will be seen not to have narrowed participation [in higher education across the social classes].

“But I think we will conclude that additional resources need to be invested in learning and teaching in universities.

“There are only two ways of doing that: increasing the contribution through fees or increase the contribution from government.

“The likelihood is that there will be a move to adjust the fee cap.”