The faults in the schooling of English teenagers have been clear for 30 years. Too many stop learning too early; in this respect, only Mexico, Turkey and Greece among OECD countries do worse. A-level exams put too high a premium on early specialisation, leading to scientists who cannot express themselves clearly and to arts graduates who do not know a quark from a quatrain, a median from a metaphor. Courses in vocational skills lack prestige and rigour; that is why it is so difficult to find decent plumbers and electricians. Pupils emerge from school triumphantly bearing GCSEs in English and maths but turn out, in employers' eyes, to be neither satisfactorily literate nor satisfactorily numerate. This is because professional educators prefer the irrelevant and the theoretical. If they had ever got hold of the driving test, millions would be able to give a detailed explanation of the internal combustion engine without actually being able to drive.
The politicians' cure is always to bolt on yet another exam. If A-levels are too narrow, let us have AS-levels or A1s in addition. If school leavers can't read or multiply, we must have a certificate in basic skills. If vocational education is neglected, we need a new superstructure of qualifications, with attendant bureaucracy and acronyms. If kids want to get out of education, some diploma can surely be invented to keep them there. But old, familiar exams carry "public confidence" and therefore remain in place. So we have 4,000 different qualifications while our young people are the most tested and monitored on the planet. It is said we need chartered examiners (like chartered accountants), complete with an Institute of Examiners. Can the day be far off when we have more examiners than teachers? Perhaps we already do.
Into this disaster area comes Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of schools, commissioned by ministers to conjure up a blueprint for reform. His solution, set out in an interim report published last Tuesday, looks simple and refreshing. All existing qualifications will be replaced by a single diploma, taken at four levels. At each level, pupils will study a "core" of reading, writing, maths and computer skills, as well as subjects, academic and vocational, chosen by them. Coursework assessment will be cut; instead, pupils will do a long-term project (not necessarily written) and be required to answer questions on it, thus sniffing out those who plagiarise from the internet or get their parents to do the hard graft. They will sit each diploma level when they are ready, not according to age.
But watch out. No British government for 50 years has managed to introduce something new in examinations without carrying forward the baggage of the old. The GCSE was supposed to be a clean break with the past, giving every child some reward for work well done and ending the unnecessary stigma of failure. But its grades A-C were declared equivalent to the old O-level passes to ensure "continuity of standards"; the lower grades were inevitably branded as fails and the whole idea of the new exam was undermined from the start. Attempts to broaden the sixth-form curriculum repeatedly foundered on demands that the A-level "gold standard" be preserved; the fiasco over A-level marking two years ago was the result of an attempt to marry new exams with old.
Expect timorous politicians to take fright at Mr Tomlinson's proposed diploma when they see the whites of its eyes. Expect the core to expand, the levels to blur, the grades to multiply, the targets to proliferate, and the subject options and diploma components to become ever more complex, as employers, universities and teachers' unions put their oars in. Politicians cannot hear the whining of a special interest group without wishing to placate it. A Whitehall bureaucrat cannot hear a child sneeze without wishing to grade the sneeze. And educators cannot tolerate simplicity.
Mr Tomlinson may already have sold the pass. He is "minded" that the advanced levels of his new diploma should have enough detailed grades to satisfy the elite universities - which want to distinguish exceptionally bright candidates from those who are just very bright. But why should it be any business of a school exam system to help Oxford and Cambridge cream off the smartest young people? Again, Mr Tomlinson proposes a "transcript" for every pupil, containing details not only of grades and scores but also "of wider activities and personal skills". It is "conceivable", he writes (without apparent qualms), that this could be "stored on an electronic database". So do not underestimate the appetite of bureaucrats and politicians for recording, assessing, grading and ticking. The golden age of paperwork is far from over.
A writer's anguish
We must all sympathise with the tortured soul of the Guardian columnist David Aaronovitch. We now await his final verdict on whether he was wrong to support the Iraq war. Most commentators, seeing their work as the proverbial fish-and-chip wrapping, would not expect readers to recall what they wrote last week, never mind last year. Some, such as Paul Johnson and Mary Kenny, moved from left to right over the years without interruption in service. A column by the late Hugo Young was once accidentally reprinted a month after the original without anybody apparently noticing - except the writer. But Mr Aaronovitch does not take his own words lightly and threatens public recantation. "Those weapons [WMDs] had better be there somewhere," he wrote last April. Indeed. Some predicted the devastation that war would cause in Iraq; nobody could have foreseen the appalling consequences in north London.