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 Moser Lord Moser Crossbench 4:06 pm, 16th March 2005

My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for initiating this important debate. The Tomlinson report makes one of the biggest contributions to our thinking on education for many decades by focusing on the crucial years of 14 to 19 and problems such as early leaving. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, reminded us that far too many children leave at 16. We are now near the bottom of the OECD league table in that respect.

The working group consulted very widely and its report is one of the best of recent decades. Obviously, there are some things missing from it, but that is inevitable. Like most noble Lords, I shall focus on the issue of the divide between vocational and academic education. In doing that, it is important to recall that the Tomlinson report was basically about underachievers, early leavers, getting the basics right, improving vocational routes, stretching the best for the best and increasing challenges. It was also about reducing the burdens of assessment and qualifications, which are burdens for teachers as well as pupils. To achieve that, the working group tackled every aspect of educational curricula and qualifications. I like the way the report combines vision with practical detail, which is not a common feature of such reports.

At the centre of the report is a unified system with vocational and academic routes. Tomlinson specifically warned against a piecemeal approach to the problem. He saw clearly that there was a central issue, which was the missing framework. What the White Paper does—and I see a lot that is very attractive in it—is to accept a good many of the pieces, indeed to build on them, but not to accept the basic structure—the integrated framework. That is why there is so much disappointment, which I share.

But let us remember the key points in which the White Paper makes considerable progress. I pick out the obvious ones—language and mathematics teaching, which are very important to improve. Tomlinson could have been stronger, as the Royal Society pointed out in its published comments, on the importance of science for the future. I applaud the emphasis on English and on literacy and numeracy. Literacy—a subject in which I have been working for many years—remains a very major and rather shocking problem in spite of some progress. So in these particulars Tomlinson has left his mark.

The White Paper has many of the basic building blocks in place, including a major simplification of qualifications in the vocational area—from some 3,000 qualifications at present to a mere 14 that are key for our economy. Given all these important parts of the White Paper, why is there such widespread disappointment? Why is there a feeling, which I share, that the Government have missed, or may miss—because I see hopes for the future—a vital opportunity?

That takes me back—alongside some of my colleagues and previous speakers—to this historic divide in our educational system between the academic and the vocational route. Those abbreviations are not totally satisfactory. This divide has always been with us, with obvious social class undertones and with what the Secretary of State herself has referred to as the problem of intellectual snobbery—so, clearly, the Secretary of State does not need persuasion that there is a social, deep-seated problem here. This divide is at the root of the great underachievement for so many of our children—literally thousands of them leaving school at 16 and not continuing to any kind of education, full-time or part-time. That was the key problem mentioned by the National Commission on Education, to which the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, referred.

What the noble Lord did not say was that it took some persuasion on my part to persuade him to chair that commission. In all my activities in the educational world, that was the toughest task I have ever had to perform, but also the one with the finest outcome. The noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, was an amazing chairman and it is a very good report. It was published 14 years ago, with some volumes appearing after that date. It is a remarkable effort and we owe a great deal to the noble Lord.

As the noble Lord reminded us, that report took very much the same route as the Tomlinson report. Many people, including most of those whom Tomlinson consulted, took the same view. We must remember that Tomlinson brought to this task, personally, the greatest experience probably of anyone in the educational world—25 years as inspector, and much else. He grasped this central issue of the divide squarely and courageously, and produced the system of diplomas. But he did not account for one brick wall—on publication day the Prime Minister stated, in addressing the CBI, that the aim would be,

"to improve . . . not to replace", the present structure. Next day, Mr Miliband said that the essence in this situation is to make a distinction between an overriding uniform framework and all the bits within it and that they were both equally important.

I end simply by stating as clearly as I can that what is much more important in this situation is to have the structure in place within which all the bits and pieces—the qualifications and the curricula—can be developed. To develop them in a piecemeal way is once again to shrink away from this historic opportunity of at last getting the structure right in which vocational and academic routes would be regarded as of equal status—not the same outcome for everybody, but of equal status, as other people have said.

I also see no particular reason for retaining the A-level as our gold standard. It is no better as an exam than the gold standard was as an economic reform. I do not know why we keep on wanting to refer to the gold standard. My hope still is that, with so much right in the White Paper, we are on a possible route towards the baccalaureate as the ultimate system. As my noble friend Lady Warnock said, I hope therefore—and I hope the Minister may refer to this—that this stage is just one of the staging posts in a long process in which Tomlinson and the White Paper can be put together in various discussions, not least in this House.