Alan Smithers: It reminds me of the Millennium Dome

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The Independent Online

The much-heralded Tomlinson proposals for reforming school examinations seem to be more showcase than substance. There are some very sensible suggestions for rectifying the current weaknesses of A-levels - for example, bypassing AS-level exams and providing more detailed information to universities. There are also some welcome ideas for improving vocational qualifications. But these necessary reforms have been subsumed into an elaborate four-tier structure of diplomas covering the ages 14 to 19.

This grand design is unworkable and undesirable. It is unworkable because it neither fits a coherent phase in education, nor maps the needs of young people. The proposed hierarchy spans both the final years of compulsory education and the two years beyond. So long as the requirement is for young people to remain in education to age 16, there needs to be a good national system of examinations at that age, which can be celebrated in its own terms, rather than being regarded as a lesser part of something else.

After the age of 16, young people want to progress in different directions according to their growing understanding of their abilities, interests and aspirations. They can best be helped on their way through an array of awards such as we have now, rather than bundling them all up in one qualification.

Behind the Tomlinson proposals may lie the intention to keep young people in compulsory education and training to age 18, in which case the idea should be debated on its merits rather than just sneaked in. Trying to raise the school-leaving age to 18 through the qualifications system is putting the cart before the horse. We can imagine the likely detrimental effects - Tomlinson himself envisages some students scrambling up his ladder to collect all the badges by the age of 16, then having to fill in time before going to their chosen university. The simple truth that there is more to education than chasing qualifications seems to have been forgotten.

The Tomlinson Committee also seems to have looked at qualifications more from the point of view of the bureaucrat than from that of the student. For bureaucrats, it would make reporting and accounting so much simpler to have a qualification system in which everyone could be sifted, sorted and classified on the same scale. Fine, perhaps, for those at the top. But pity the students who would be labelled for life as having reached only the lowest rung of the lowest level. Never will the sheep and the goats have been marked out more clearly.

The point of qualifications is to open doors. Under the Tomlinson proposals, it will no longer be possible to play games or to take part in the school play just for fun. There will have to be formal assessment. Young people will not be able to submit themselves for assessment in just the directions they want to go, with passes in history or physics, hairdressing or plumbing testifying to their strengths, but silent on weaknesses. With the all-embracing diploma, every omission becomes a failure.

Among the compulsory components will be numeracy, communication and IT. This seems a curiously backward-looking way to design a qualification for 10 years hence. True, too many young people have been leaving school unable to handle words and numbers. But this has been a major thrust of the government's education policy and the benefits are already showing through. Another paradox is that there is to be a compulsory project to cut down on coursework.

The committee has evidently been struggling to fulfil its brief. It is not clear how the various components are to be combined to produce an overall result, or whether that assessment is to be graded or not. Neither is it clear what will happen to the people who pass in their subjects, but do not complete other bits and pieces.

The Tomlinson report reminds me of the Millennium dome - a fanciful shell with disappointing content. The Government is right to want to improve school examinations, but this can be achieved best by developing what we have, rather than overturning everything in pursuit of a superficially attractive, but impractical ideal.

The writer is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool