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 Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills 4:06 pm, 16th March 2005

My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lady Sharp for giving us the opportunity to discuss this very important matter today. There have been so many excellent and impassioned speeches in this debate that it is a great challenge for those of us winding to do it justice. I shall do my best.

My noble friend Lady Sharp referred to the Tomlinson report as the opportunity of a lifetime. It is therefore rather sad that so many concerns have been expressed very legitimately around the House today.

The world is becoming a much more competitive place for us. During the Industrial Revolution, the UK led the world in many respects. Nowadays we do not. The UK workplace is also becoming more competitive, even though we have a very high level of employment. That is why this subject is so vitally important to our future.

We face many problems, which the Tomlinson report sought to address. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, reminded us of the lack of engagement of so many young people in their education. The further education sector often needs to correct the failings of the school system in later life—that is, if the person concerned has enough energy and motivation to undertake it.

The noble Lord, Lord Pendry, reminded us of our skills shortage. We must remember that those who train for practical skills also need good English and maths abilities, in order to run a successful business. Any of your Lordships who have ever received an almost unintelligible estimate from a plumber or builder will realise that that is the case.

We have also been reminded that we have 20 per cent functional illiteracy in this country; 47 per cent of our children leave school without the target five A to C GCSEs. We do not really know how many leave without maths and English. Of course, 5 per cent leave without any qualifications at all.

We have been reminded about the lack of participation in post-16 education. Two noble Lords mentioned that we are in fact 24th out of 28 OECD countries for participation at sixth-form level in our schools. Perhaps today's Budget announcement will help to encourage more young people to stay on. I really hope so.

I was most interested in the description by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, of the increased flexibility programme, and the global citizenship initiative. These strike me as the sort of things that will give young people the sort of interest that might encourage them to stay on.

One of our problems is that our exam system is geared more to select for university than to prepare young people for the world of work. Businesses are constantly complaining about the shortcomings of the current system. We also, as my noble friend Lady Sharp mentioned, have a rather narrow sixth-form curriculum—one of the narrowest in the world. Some noble Lords have emphasised the benefits of the international baccalaureate, including the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, who, with the noble Lord, Lord Moser, in his commission of 1993, has clearly been extremely visionary. It shows us, perhaps, that some of the things that Mike Tomlinson is proposing are not the result of new needs. Twelve years ago, that commission was talking about the need for breadth, saying that it is quite fundamental.

A-levels are not suitable for many young people. Even when they are, they do not sufficiently challenge many of those who take them. The response to this seems only to be the giving of a project, or an essay that enables the best students to show their ability. As we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, most able students also include many young people who have a vocational bent. We need in our society clever electricians, plumbers and builders and other people of that nature.

We were reminded by my noble friend Lady Sharp of the cost of external assessment, which is £610 million. But I suggest that the cost is also in the loss of creativity and innovation, when we find teachers teaching to the test.

Despite all those problems, many schools do absolutely excellent work. I enjoyed the account from the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, of the single-sex schools in Islington, but I wonder what happens to girls who want to go into business and boys who want to go on the stage.

I believe that the Government have missed opportunities in responding to the Tomlinson report. After 25 years' experience—some of it, I understand, under the guidance of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland—Mike Tomlinson has offered a sensible and appropriate set of proposals to address the problems that we face over a sensible timescale. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, commented that the report,

"combines vision with practical detail", and warns against a piecemeal approach. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, agreed with Tomlinson in that, as do I.

First, I welcome the fact that the Government have now said that the five A to C grade targets will in future have to include English and maths. I welcome the fact that the general GCSE diploma will include those subjects and that the GCSE achievement and attainment tables will also include them. I mention the comments in today's media from Ivan Lewis MP, who talked about the need to "raise the bar" and the fact that the Government are being quite courageous in saying that they will do that because initially it might seem that the achievement levels are going down a little. Well, it just shows that there was very much a need to do that.

I also welcome the fact that in future pupils will be able to take exams when they are ready. Of course, a credit system would work very much better if children were allowed to do that. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, was very enthusiastic about that aspect of the report. I also welcome the simplification of vocational qualifications.

But the proposed unified framework of achievement has been dismissed. According to the Government, the diploma framework will be retained only for vocational and work-based areas, and GCSEs have only been tinkered with. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, wants to keep the brand of GCSEs and A-levels. I think that, so long as we keep the content, there is no reason why we should not have the broader vision.

Tomlinson tried to address a fundamental cultural attitude towards vocational training and skills. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth talked about vocational training being seen as second class. He also talked about the need for continuation of religious education. I have to admit to having some sympathy with the right reverend Prelate. In our multicultural and multi-religious society, religious fundamentalism and the misunderstanding by advocates of one religion of the tenets of another religion cause us enormous problems.

I also welcome the fact that young people will be able to include community involvement in their achievement record in future. I remember how much I learnt from the community involvement that I had when I was in the sixth-form at school. I went to work for a lady who was bedridden with arthritis and who lived in a very deprived community. Apart from learning how to put a bet on at Aintree, which I certainly had not known how to do previously, I learnt a great deal about a society of which I knew absolutely nothing before.

But the problem is that the Government's response does nothing to bridge the divide between vocational and academic training and nor does it allow the kind of flexibility that we need. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, talked about the need for firm foundations—I absolutely agree with her about early years education—but she suggested that it needs a certain solution. Perhaps another solution is flexibility. Wooden houses bend and give a little and they do not crack, and the same is true of trees. They bend with the wind rather than break. As a botanist, I am always quoting these analogies, but I think that that is what we need. We need flexibility. Tomlinson offered us that, and it is a pity that the Government have dismissed some of his major recommendations.