Uneducated reforms

For this recent A-level graduate, the Tomlinson Report makes uninspiring reading.

Francis Boorman

Topics Politics

One newspaper claims that ‘[Mike] Tomlinson is proposing the biggest upheaval in English education since 1944’ (1). But will his report revolutionise education, or just build new systems around old problems? As someone who has just completed A-levels, I’m not impressed.

The Tomlinson Report, published on 18 October 2004, hopes to introduce ‘core learning’, which should ‘comprise: functional mathematics; functional literacy and communication; functional ICT’ (2). This reduces the objective of education to teaching the most menial skills that a job could require. There is also the fact that most young people are perfectly capable at ICT already, often far better than their teachers. To sit through an IT lesson on what you already know, then have a teacher ‘encourage appreciation of language in use, so that learners can be effective communicators in a range of contexts’, doesn’t strike me as exciting learning. Teachers may as well be training pupils how to order pizza over the phone.

The report proposes that ‘core learning would account for approximately 30 per cent of the minimum required credits at all diploma levels’. Although this figure does include an extended project, the marks awarded for demonstrating ‘functional communication’ show an increasing willingness to reward pupils for even the most basic achievements. Second guessing criticism from the likes of me, the report says it aims at ‘enabling young people to build confidence by gaining credit for small steps of achievement, which is recognised on a transcript’.

As well as their core subjects, ‘all 14-19 year olds should be entitled to access wider activities such as work experience, service within the community and involvement in sports, the arts or outdoor activities. Participation and (where appropriate) achievement in these should be recorded on the diploma transcript’. Of course children should be able to be play sports or help within the community, but these activities shouldn’t be part of our ‘core and main learning’, or recognised on a national academic diploma.

Schools should be places for education – developing our knowledge and our ability to analyse problems. Being good at sports is a personal matter for kids and should stay that way. School leavers already note down their extracurricular achievements in their National Record of Achievement. Mine consisted mainly of swimming certificates and recognition for the daffodils I had grown in primary school. I did not send it off with my university application.

A key focus of the Tomlinson Report is ‘reducing assessment burden’. Having had at least two sets of exams every year for the past three years, I would see this as a positive move. The point of an exam is surely to differentiate between the ability level of pupils in the fairest way possible, to provide other institutions – whether businesses or universities – with an idea of their relative talent in a subject. There is no need to set a national examination for somebody at a stage in their life when nobody beyond their school and family (and perhaps government target-setters) are interested in the result.

However, the Tomlinson Report suggests reducing the number of written exams, only to increase official teacher assessments. The overall assessment burden will just move sideways from examiners to teachers. It proposes continuous assessment to reduce the reliance upon the supposedly unfair method of ‘assessing learners on how well they perform in two hours of exams’ (3). But while a student’s performance in written exams can fluctuate, it is still the fairest way of comparing a whole age group across the country. Relying upon the ‘professional judgement’ of teachers and lecturers will create situations in which favouritism and subjective interpretations of criteria could determine pupils’ marks.

For pupils who are not pushed far enough by A-levels, the report tries to introduce the concept of ‘stretch at the top end’, apparently allowing universities to distinguish between top-level candidates through the introduction of A+ and A++ grades (4). But grading papers will then come down to nit picking between candidates at the higher end of the scale, which misses the wider problem of a syllabus that is designed to be easy enough for almost everyone to pass the exam.

The report’s promotion of flexibility is another weakness. Attempts to allow pupils to study at their own pace and work at the ‘foundation’ and ‘intermediate’ levels simultaneously, shows a lack of ambition to spur pupils on to the highest possible level of achievement . Graduation will not be encouraged at a certain age, but instead when the pupil is ready, degrading the exam as a source of comparison between age groups. It will also serve to patronise those people for whom it is ‘beneficial’ to remain on a lower level while the rest of their peers move up.

Then there is the attempt to integrate vocational skill into diplomas. Vocational skills are extremely important, which is exactly why we should not be muddling them up with academic subjects. The current system already does that in design technology subjects, which denigrate both their academic and vocational components. In one electronics GCSE paper I sat, I was asked how I would test the durability of a remote control – a question that was supposed to examine my knowledge of industrial practice. I was given full marks for saying that someone should press the remote control’s buttons until it broke, and write down the number of presses this took. In a GSCE specimen test paper for food technology, candidates were asked to design a ‘salad in a tub’, and then state the target audience for their product. The answer booklet tells us that the candidate should have written one of the following targets: ‘picnic, barbecue, packed lunches or summer buffet.’ (5)

Instead of encouraging such farcical crossovers, it would be better for all pupils to be given the best academic education possible while they are at school. People could then undertake distinct vocational training. The report laments the lack of suitable facilities and ‘teacher expertise’ in vocational learning, but of course many teachers don’t have ‘industry experience’. You need to look to industry – not schools – for that. A ‘GCSE in construction and the built environment’ won’t interest people who were going to drop out of education, because it will teach them less than would a job as a builder.

The Tomlinson Report is a product of its times: lacking in academic excellence and excessive in its attempt not to hurt anyone’s feelings. School will only motivate and interest young people if it helps them do what they’re there for – learning.

Francis Boorman has just finished his A-levels, and is currently working as a spiked intern.

(1) Daily Telegraph, editorial, 19 October 2004

(2) See the Tomlinson Report

(3) 14-19 reform explained for young people and parents

(4) 14-19 reform explained for higher education

(5) OCR food technology specimen paper (.pdf)

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Topics Politics


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