Education: Tomlinson Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:06 pm on 16th March 2005.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Labour 4:06 pm, 16th March 2005

My Lords, we are deeply in debt to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for keeping these important matters before us and for giving us this opportunity to discuss in such a free way the proposals of the Tomlinson report and the White Paper that responds to it.

I live in the London Borough of Islington. I do not confess that in too many places as I might get a groan in response, but this is a safe place from that point of view. I am a governor and trustee of the Central Foundation School for Boys and the Central Foundation School for Girls. In the few years that I have been associated with those beleaguered schools in a very difficult social setting at the southern end of the borough of Islington there has been an improvement in morale, the investment of funds and examination results. I want to put that on the record and I would be delighted to respond on it. Financial support has been increased and the schools have become special schools: the boys' school specialises in business and enterprise and the girls' school specialises in the performing arts. We have been able to bring professional people from the City of London in to act as mentors and to enter into relationships with some of our young people. Local offices have also been involved in a healthy to-ing and fro-ing.

I welcome the fact that pupils aged 16 and above are given financial inducements to continue their education. It seems to me that that is a very important consideration. When I go into the schools, I rejoice at the way in which provision is made for the teaching, in the classroom or outside it, of children with special educational needs, as well as the teaching of the normal core curriculum subjects. There has been a terrific sea change and I record it with great pleasure. So I give credit where credit is due. All that has been happening while Tomlinson and his colleagues were deliberating and while those who responded in the White Paper were thinking.

I picked out in the report the notion of a unified framework within which the proposals being put forward could happen. I regret that it has not figured more in the debate. I thought it was an ingenious idea that showed great imagination. It also showed realism because a proper time was envisaged for transitional arrangements to take us to full implementation. I liked the way that there was so much crossover and flexibility at the different levels so that a pupil could buy in and out of different strata and put together something coherent that worked around him. I liked the realistic way that it related the world of learning to the world of work. The only thing missing was an adequate definition of "education". The words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth—"human flourishing"—seem as good a definition as any to me, as do "spiritual, moral, social and cultural development". I distrust acronyms that have a "k" in them.

I do not want to rake over old ground and ideological battles long won, but I am encouraged to do so by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. In the 1950s and 1960s, we lived in a world that told us where we belonged. I passed the 11-plus examination but my brother, my only sibling, who was a year younger than me, did not. He went to the secondary modern school and he knew his place all right. Although it was a good secondary modern school and he was a very good student, every pupil in the school knew that he was only there because he had failed an exam. My brother could sniff out from a mile away patronising proposals to marginalise pupils who do not perform well in our educational system. I wish he were alive now to help me apply his nose to the proposals in Tomlinson and the White Paper.

We must separate less able pupils from those with vocational orientations because they are not the same and we have less able pupils. The unified framework offers honest ways that, if we worked at it, could give everybody a sense of achieving what they were capable of and could equip them for the world of work. I share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and fear that the separation of GCSEs and A-levels from other possibilities will diminish them and I would like some reassurance from the Minister on that when he sums up the debate.

I rejoice at what Tomlinson has put before us. There is much that is good in the White Paper but there is a conceptual flaw at its heart. I would love to think that we could go on working on that to see if we can bring forward something better at the end of the day.