Education: Tomlinson Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:50 pm on 16th March 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Warnock Baroness Warnock Crossbench 3:50 pm, 16th March 2005

My Lords, like other noble Lords I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for giving the House a chance to debate the Tomlinson report and for the things she said. It is a pity that there was not a chance to debate it before but at least we now have the advantage of being able to discuss the Government's response at the same time.

In her foreword to the White Paper, the Secretary of State speaks of breaking down artificial barriers between academic and vocational education. She has correctly identified what needs to be done, and what, indeed, Tomlinson sought to do. But it seems to me that, sadly, her words introduce a rather timid and short-sighted White Paper.

The proposal in the Tomlinson report that would really have broken down the barriers referred to by the Secretary of State was to phase out GCSE and A-level as freestanding examinations and instead embrace a single overarching system of diplomas at four levels, each containing core (compulsory) and main elements to be chosen by students and tested and assessed when they were ready. I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that this all-embracing system of diplomas—it is not just one diploma; it is a system of diplomas—would be meaningless. Indeed, I believe that it would be an extremely good and transparent system for seeing what the student has learnt and what he or she can do.

The great advantage of this system is that there would be no more blocks of examinations to be taken at fixed ages—16, 17 and 18. Pupils would accumulate credits for parts of each diploma as they were ready, and at 18 or 19 would have a set of diplomas that reflected what they had learnt along the way.

I must confess that for a very long time I have been an advocate of a system of student assessment by graded tests in both practical and theoretical subjects roughly modelled on—as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, suggested—the Associated Board music examinations, where practical and theoretical aspects of the subject are tested separately, and where the tests—in this case grades I to VIII—represent approximately a year's work, but where there is no restriction whatever on the age at which they may be taken. They are marked on a scale from nought to 150, and the marks are blocked into fail, pass, merit and distinction. These are intelligible and well respected methods of assessment in that subject. Each graded test—this is an important point—presents the student with a new goal that looks attainable from where she happens to be, and therefore, motivation is sustained throughout.

Tomlinson's proposed system of four graded diplomas: entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced, each divided into separately assessed components, is an elegant and workable extension of the same principle across the whole curriculum, giving the same attainable goals and the same flexibility, to accommodate pupils of different ages, different levels of ability and different spheres of interest.

I must confess to having been optimistic at one stage when I first learnt what Tomlinson's proposals were likely to be. I hoped that at last the division between those who were doomed to fail—which is the majority of students—and the rest was going to be allowed to disappear. Students would now, as I hoped, all be able to have a diploma saying what they had done and could do in the future, and would all be motivated to achieve the best diploma in their chosen subjects, practical or theoretical. They could take pride in their work and their achievements, whatever they were. Sadly, I was too sanguine. What we have in the White Paper is a compromise, a dog's breakfast, with diplomas only loosely attached to the old framework of blocks of examinations at 16 and 18. GCSE will even, we are told, be strengthened—I believe that is the word which is used—and so erect a further fatal barrier to yet more students to alienate and demoralise them.

I well remember years ago when the noble Lord, Lord Baker, was in charge of education telling him about my bright idea for graded tests and the phasing out of GCSE and A-level. He said, "Oh, no, we could not possibly do that. A-level is, after all, the gold standard". The number of times people have said that A-level is the gold standard are uncountable, but it is even less true now than it was in the days when the noble Lord, Lord Baker, used that phrase, perhaps for the first time. The metaphor will not do any longer. A-level is not the gold standard because too many people pass it at too high grades and it has become useless for either of its functions; namely, as a school leaving certificate or as an entry to university.

I fear that the White Paper would, if it were implemented in its present form, change very little. If GCSE and A-level are to remain as freestanding structural parts of education progress up the school, we are stuck with the rigid distinction between the sheep and the goats. Long, long ago, after the Butler Education Act, we used to be told that there should be parity of esteem between secondary modern and grammar schools and between CSE and O-level. But parity of esteem will not come about and cannot be brought into existence just by a ministerial promise that it should be so. We need an education revolution to provide chances for those who are now at the bottom of the scale of esteem and who put themselves lower and lower by their lack of interest, lack of ambition, failure to see where they can go next and what the next immediate education step is for them.

I believe that Tomlinson promised something like parity of esteem, which has apparently been turned down. I hope, however, that we can treat the White Paper as a beginning and not an end. I wish I could agree with the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, that there is not really all that much difference between what Tomlinson proposes and what the White Paper proposes. However, I believe that there is a huge difference and that that is a gap which we must fill somehow or other.