My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, on securing this debate. From these Benches, I can say that we wholeheartedly supported the central aim of Tomlinson—and would have expected the Government to do so far more explicitly. The aim of breaking down the barriers between the academic and the so-called vocational pathways seemed to be at the heart of the government Green Paper which led to the Tomlinson report in the first place. I speak for schools all over the country, such as St Luke's in Portsmouth, which vocational GCSE programmes have helped to turn into the seventh most improved school in the country. That is not just in terms of hard and fast results, but also in atmosphere, ethos and character.
Why is all this so important? There seem to be two purposes of education; on the one hand, human flourishing and the fulfilment of human potential and, on the other hand, social prosperity and economic success. Both are important. Both contribute to a happier, better society. Both would be promoted by ensuring that vocational routes in education become as highly valued as academic routes.
The Government's response in the recent White Paper came as rather a disappointment. The decision to retain GCSEs and A-levels, largely for academic routes, but to introduce new diplomas for vocational routes misses the opportunity to break down the binary line between academic and vocational. I appreciate the particular desire of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, to explore that further. However, as a result, vocational courses run the risk of being seen as second class. If that is the result, it is more than a disappointment. It is a missed opportunity to correct one of the persistent ills in British society. It will require of employers and higher education institutions much greater efforts to recognise the quality of the education many young people receive through non-traditional routes.
Then there is the place of religious education. There are aspects of the Tomlinson proposals which caused us some concern—more for what was not said than for what was. We might have expected the government White Paper to make up that gap, but in vain. Last year, Charles Clarke, when he was Secretary of State for Education, launched a new national framework for religious education. The Churches and the other faith communities had impressed him with their ability to work together with the government and RE professionals to agree on such a framework. The Government, in their turn, continued their commitment to religious education. The framework reinstates the requirement that RE is taught to all learners in school between the ages of three and 19—and that looks like being a very broadly based RE. I am not talking of a kind of narrow, conservative, Christian evangelical ghetto, but of something much broader.
We had hoped that Tomlinson, or at least the government White Paper, would have maintained consistency of approach by ensuring the entitlement of every learner in schools to RE in the crucial years beyond 14 and beyond 16. If they had been really consistent, they would have found a way to ensure that 14 to 19 learners also benefited from continuing religious education in some form or other. Many in further education colleges would welcome such a development, but I am afraid we were disappointed. References to religious education are scarce, and most were concerned with linking it with other curriculum subjects to make more time available for other activities. That is always the story when there is argument for a particular course.
Religious education is, these days, a fundamentally important part of the curriculum—and recognised as such by a dramatic increase in candidates taking examination courses. This, as supported by the statistics, is rather to the embarrassment of the old, tired secularist line. Perhaps I should not need to add that, as now conceived, RE contributes powerfully to the building of a more inclusive and cohesive society. We must act to prevent its disappearance in the new, post-14 environment.
Finally, the Tomlinson report had some interesting but tentative proposals about personal education. As with every self-respecting report, Tomlinson would have introduced another acronym to challenge the budding educationalist, CKSA: common knowledge, skills and attributes. I am afraid that we were able to give these only two cheers. We do get enthusiastic sometimes—two cheers, not one, but not quite three. The proposals, it seems to us, were an uncomfortable mix of functional skills, personal education and routes to becoming a responsible adult playing a role in the community. One tentative suggestion was that every student should have some kind of community engagement, whether helping young children to read or visiting elderly and house-bound people in their homes to help with some weekly chores. Many schools and colleges do have very effective community involvement. Such further developments would have been very welcome, even though demanding for schools and colleges to manage.
Rather than inventing the new name of common knowledge, skills and attributes, I would rather have seen this as an important part of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. That is fundamental to the British education system, and only recently reinforced in your Lordships' House through the passage of the Education Bill. Yet the Tomlinson proposals seem to be tentative and less visible in the White Paper—where personal education is mentioned, but not really highlighted.
Functional literacy, numeracy and "stretch" are of course important, but they emphasise the functional nature of the proposed changes. With the less than adequate treatment of religious education and personal skills in the White Paper response to Tomlinson, it seems that they add up to little more than a utilitarian package. Can we not, together, raise three cheers for human flourishing—and thus avoid the pitfall eloquently described by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, as "turning diversity into hierarchy"?