School & District Management

Report Lays Out Vision of English Secondary Schooling

By Lynn Olson — October 26, 2004 3 min read
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A national task force in England last week proposed an overhaul of education for students 14 to 19 that’s designed to improve career education, stretch more able students, and reduce the testing burden.

“14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform: Final Report of the Working Group on 14-19 Reform,” is available online from the Department for Education and Skills (U.K.). ()

The final report of the Working Group on 14-19 Reform, headed by Mike Tomlinson, a former chief inspector of schools, calls for a new diploma system, to be devised over the next decade, that would recognize increasingly sophisticated levels of accomplishment: “entry,” “foundation,” “intermediate,” and “advanced.”

The changes would only apply in England and not to students in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland.

The diplomas would replace existing exams and qualifications for 14- to 19-year-olds, although much of their content would be retained as components of the new system but with less external assessment.

Under the new system, young people could choose an “open” diploma with a mix of subjects, similar to those taken by many secondary students today. Alternatively, they could choose a diploma specializing in an employment sector or an academic discipline. Students might, for example, opt for an engineering diploma, a languages and literature diploma, or a science and mathematics diploma.

Teenagers would continue to study national curriculum subjects. And all students would have to pass tests in three core skills needed for the workplace: literacy, math, and information and communications technology.

But most of a young person’s time would be spent pursuing his or her particular area of interest. Every student also would have to complete an extended project.

The changes are meant to address several concerns about England’s system of secondary education, including the low percentage of youths who continue their learning beyond the compulsory age of 16; business complaints that too few young people are properly equipped for work; and complaints from university officials that they cannot distinguish between the many students earning A’s on the nation’s primary college-entrance exams. (“England Sets Sights on Secondary Schools,” May 5, 2004.)

‘Tale of Two Halves’

Jane Benham, the division manager for the examinations system and 14-19 reform unit in England’s Department for Education and Skills, described the situation as a “tale of two halves,” with 51 percent of students ages 14 to 19 now earning the necessary qualifications to pursue further education and training, and 49 percent leaving school without those qualifications.

The proposals were welcomed both by Universities UK, an umbrella group representing higher education institutions, and secondary school head teachers.

“The proposals offer the opportunity for universities to draw from a wider pool of well-qualified candidates from all sections of society,” said Ivor Crewe, the president of Universities UK. “The report has also tackled the difficult problem of how universities can differentiate between the most able candidates, which has been a growing concern.”

The report proposes eight different grades for the advanced-level qualifications, including an A++ for the top 5 percent of students. Transcripts also would contain more information, such as whether a student has significantly outperformed others from a similar background or school.

The Secondary Heads Association particularly welcomed proposals to place more trust in the professional judgment of classroom teachers to carry out internal assessments, as part of the system.

“Secondary school leaders strongly support the Tomlinson recommendations,” said John Dunford, the general secretary for the association, “which will create a stronger, more coherent qualifications structure, raise the esteem of vocational awards, and reduce the burden of external examinations.”

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