Inspector suggests reforms – Narrow A-Levels should go

For several years now, Mike Tomlinson, former Chief Inspector of England’s schools, has suggested replacing the GCSE and A-Level exams, that are currently in place in the UK, with a baccalaureate style diploma system. The move came following concerns from universities that there are too many students with high grades. For Tomlinson, this suggests that markers are becoming progressively more lenient and that exam papers are not challenging the students and preparing them adequately for the standards of higher education.

The latest interim report from Tomlinson claims that literacy and numeracy skills of students are still not up to scratch and that the current education system is failing to equip students with the skills they require to be successful in the modern business world.

Under the proposals, A-Levels and GCSE’s would become units within a diploma. School Standards Minister, David Milliband, said the new system aims to reduce the burden of too many exams and solve the problem of unqualified school leavers, who fail due to the limiting structure of A-Levels.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which has contested the notion of scrapping A-Levels, has welcomed the effort to reduce unqualified school leavers. The National Association of Head Teachers also agreed with the proposals from Tomlinson, saying that reform was well overdue.

But what is the feeling in the Algarve’s international schools?

The Resident reporter George Fletcher spoke to John Butterworth, headmaster of the International School of the Algarve in Porches, to understand how these proposals would affect the school and what his views were on the report from the former Chief Inspector of Schools. “From what I have read so far,” he explained, “I can say that they make a great deal of sense. It is no surprise that the National Association of Head Teachers in the UK has welcomed them.”

But in response to Tomlinson’s comments that school leavers were lacking in literacy and numeracy skills, Mr Butterworth is in firm disagreement, explaining: “Whatever the case in the UK, I am certain that the students leaving our school are not lacking in either of those skills.” He went on to comment how his students, “are additionally equipped for the world of work ahead of them by virtue of their fluency in three or more languages.”

Mr Butterworth did agree that the current GCSE and A-Level system left students over-burdened with examinations, claiming: “Such a system leaves too little time for any in-depth study. If the suggested diploma system enables students to study a wider range of courses, makes them more flexibly qualified for future employment and enables the brighter students to really show what they can do by stretching them more, then it will win widespread support from teachers.”

The interim report also proposes an alteration to the course work structure. This would allow students to undertake a personal project, which could include recognition of wider non-academic activities. “I find this suggestion very promising,” Mr Butterworth told us. “Another excellent idea is to allow students to progress through the stages of the diploma system, as and when they are ready, not simply when they reach a certain age.” On balance, John Butterworth welcomes the reforms; however, on questions of how this will affect the International School, his main concern is that any changes are gradual and do not upset the students’ routine. “One of the biggest problems for schools in recent years,” he stated, “has been the sheer volume, regularity and pace of change. It would be important to phase in the Tomlinson proposals, assuming they are accepted by the government, in a student and teacher-friendly way.”

As Mr Butterworth explained, there is still a long way to go before Tomlinson submits his final report. Following that, the government will have to decide which reforms will be accepted and which will be scrapped. However, what Tomlinson has made very clear in his most recent report is that a selection of the reforms he has suggested will not suffice as a useful reworking of the education system. “Fiddling around in a piecemeal way with little bits of the system really is no longer the answer – we’ve got to tackle the system as a whole,” he explained.