Bethan Marshall: A history lesson for the critics of these reforms

Tomlinson's analysis has provoked criticism from the two sources that this government fears most
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The Independent Online

The Tomlinson report, on education for 14 to 19-year-olds, published yesterday, was preceded by more leaks than London's aging drainage system. But while most would accept that our Victorian waterworks need a radical overhaul, there are some who would not only like to leave our examination system alone but to turn the clock back 25 years or more. And while their views are in a minority, their voices make major reform of education difficult to introduce.

The Tomlinson report, on education for 14 to 19-year-olds, published yesterday, was preceded by more leaks than London's aging drainage system. But while most would accept that our Victorian waterworks need a radical overhaul, there are some who would not only like to leave our examination system alone but to turn the clock back 25 years or more. And while their views are in a minority, their voices make major reform of education difficult to introduce.

In the main Tomlinson has been well received. His careful study of the problem of the qualifications on offer to the teenagers of England and Wales has led him to conclude that they take too many exams and that we are losing too many young people from formal education at 16 in comparison with most other western nations. He has acknowledged, also, that some universities have a tough time using A-levels to decide who to take and who to reject.

His solution is a four-tiered diploma system that allows pupils to progress along broadly defined pathways, both vocational and academic, between the ages of 14 and 19. As with most of Europe, the United States and Australia the school leaving qualification now moves to 18 rather than our anomalous one at 16 - the GCSE. The idea of matriculation is also re-introduced under Tomlinson, that is that unless a certain standard is achieved, the given level of diploma is not awarded. And perhaps most importantly he has recommended a lengthy trial and introductory period to iron out any problems before wholesale introduction.

Leaving aside the obvious caveat that the devil lies in the detail, and this has yet to be fleshed out, it is hard to disagree with either Tomlinson's conclusions about the flaws or his solutions to them. But his intelligent analysis has provoked vociferous, and ill-informed, criticism from the two sources that this Labour government fear most - business and the Daily Mail.

The universities, schools, both state and independent, and the teaching unions - from the NUT to the Secondary Heads Association - have broadly welcomed the proposals. The CBI and the erstwhile schools' inspector Chris Woodhead have attacked Tomlinson in their various ways for being liberal or progressive. The CBI wanted a much tougher line on the basics while those champions of a right wing education agenda, such as Woodhead, seemed to think that by keeping the name A-level, high standards would be ensured. The difficulty with the gripes from this particular quarter is that they never offer a constructive alternative. They are conservative with a small as well as a large C. They fear change. Eager to complain about their perception of the shortcomings of the current system - grade inflation at A-level, standards of literacy of school leavers, a dislike of modules or course-based assessment, the dumbing down of the syllabuses, the list could stretch till the end of this article - rarely do they suggest anything positive in its stead. Nor, curiously for people so obsessed with the past, do they appear to have any historical perspective.

If we look back 25 years or so, as they are very wont to do, we see a school system in which the overwhelming majority left school at 16, the average qualification was the equivalent of a GCSE grade F and barely 10 per cent of the population went on to university.

True, you knew who the elite were. But it was hardly a sustainable or, more importantly, desirable system for a country that claimed to provide a decent educational experience for all its young people and wanted to compete on a global stage. The waste of talent was inexcusable, the acceptance of underachievement without justification. It had to change.

The past quarter century has seen an unprecedented level of reform. Now the average grade at GCSE is a C and almost a half of all pupils achieve at least five grades A-C at this level. The rate at which pupils stay after the age of 16 is increasing year by year and the number going to university has trebled.

For most this would look like a success, one on which to build a new system that better reflected these changes in the educational landscape. But for the moaners it only further disrupts their sense of a pre-ordained academic pecking order in which sheep are clearly sheep and goats, goats. The Tories desire to reintroduce norm referencing at A-level (where only a percentage of a cohort are awarded a grade), instead of Tomlinson's reforms, is again indicative of the a desire to make the business of education about discriminating between pupils rather than rewarding actual achievement.

If Charles Clarke is true to his desire to raise standards for all then he will listen to Tomlinson. The reforms are progressive and need to be. For too long we have been told by those on the right that standards are only preserved by maintaining the status quo or returning to the past. A Labour government with a commitment to a democratic entitlement for all its pupils needs to challenge that assumption and endorse Tomlinson's report.

The writer is lecturer in education at King's College, London

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