Education: Tomlinson Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 16th March 2005.

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Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 2:30 pm, 16th March 2005

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has given us an opportunity to discuss Tomlinson. The same delight does not seem to have been experienced by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills when she addressed the conference of the Secondary Heads Association recently. The TES noted some extremely pungent comments:

"'It was just awful' . . . 'I found it patronising' . . . 'superficial' . . . 'I have never felt so disappointed and angry'".

No need for the barbed wire undergarments that day. Ruth Kelly must have had a hard time. A general reading of the education press suggests that the Secretary of State could do with a few friends when it comes to her proposals, so I offer myself as one.

I share her doubts about the idea of an overarching diploma. In the days of information technology and the ease of dealing with and presenting varied information, I do not think that we should seek to reduce a pupil's educational attainments to a single figure. A diploma made up of so many different elements to reach the same answer will be something that people pay no attention to because they will not know what it means. You have to give those who are expected to place value on these qualifications enough information about what the student has actually done and actually achieved.

The international baccalaureate is a wonderful qualification. It suits a particular kind of person—the kid who has the breadth of intelligence to tackle all that is required to do well in it. A-levels are wonderful for those who are more specialist. If you are a scientist or your joy lies in languages, or if you are maths blind but a really good historian, A-levels are absolutely for you. I share the wish of the Secretary of State to keep A-levels and, indeed, GCSEs as the foundation of our examination system. In spite of all the criticism, they are quality examinations and we should build on what we already have.

None the less, I am with Tomlinson and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, in saying that we really need to move. In taking the 20-year view—this is a long process—we must look ahead to see what can be improved in order to tackle the well known problems of the divide between vocational and academic, over-examination and so forth. Immediate wholesale reform is not required, but we need a programme of reform, one that I hope to see shared as far as possible between the parties. We should give ourselves time to talk about it, certainly in this arena, in a relatively non-partisan way. We will then have a common idea of where we are going, ensuring that every time there is a change of government—may that be soon; apart from the sadness of losing the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, it would be a pleasure from many other points of view—we do not hiccup between one vision for education and another.

Some time ago we adopted the concept of lifelong learning. We have all agreed on its importance, but we have not adapted the examination system to go with it. Exams are too big a step to make lifelong learning easy. I wholly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that one should be able to add to qualifications as you go along. It should not be a two-year stretch to pass an A-level; there ought to be steps that can be taken along the way. Those steps ought to mean something so that, while they would not be the final examination, it should be possible to clock them up over time. One should be able to say, "I am half way to an A-level and I have taken a step to sign myself off. I will now work for a couple of years and come back to the A-level after that". That system would make examinations, if not modular, more like the music examination system. Students can take steps and do not necessarily have to do everything all at once. That would be a mark of progress.

I should like to see GCSEs regarded as a final examination, signalling that it is the last examination you intend to take in a particular subject, although you may go on to do other things. The curriculum is too bound up in the obsession with the academic and thus is overly defined by academics. That makes it pretty useless to anyone not aiming to pursue the curriculum to its higher levels. I have mentioned before that when taking my son through his GCSE maths revision, even though I have spent my life working with figures, I have not used three-quarters of what he had to learn. Yet I have used a whole lot of mathematics out there in the world which are never introduced at the GCSE level, but would be very useful to people.

Making the GCSE a final examination for those who are stopping at that point would give us some constructive changes to the curriculum and would allow those who want to go further to progress straight to AS-level. They would never take a GCSE in their subject, but would carry on studying until they reach the AS stage. Perhaps, as Tomlinson says, people should be able to take these exams when they are ready, whether early or late. People could build up a portfolio of AS-levels from subjects they have chosen to take seriously. That would allow them to be much wider in their choice of GCSEs—to go off and explore a GCSE in car mechanics or construction, or whatever it might be. Rather than being hemmed in, as they are at the moment, by a rigid set of choices, it would allow people to take fewer exams when they are right and ready for them. We can move to that within the existing structure, if that is where we agree it should go.

I am comforted by some of the little changes taking place at the moment, but the key thing we have to get right is university recognition of what we are doing. What killed the concept of AS-levels was that the universities did not pay any attention to them. They just looked at the A-levels; so, kids who had spent a lot of time getting extra AS-levels received no credit for that at all, and that concept is dead. As the TES said on 11 March in its article headed "Blocked routes to higher learning", there is still that problem with universities not recognising qualifications which are out there that we have created. That pattern has continued, all the way down. If we are to move to the broadening of 14 to 19 education, we must ask at least some of the universities to move to something broader too.

I have just published a book on US universities. It is extraordinary how broad their courses are. Almost all of them offer the liberal arts degree, which means that mathematicians will be doing languages and humanities.