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Ahead of the game but wary of Tomlinson

The secondary education systems of England and Wales still owe more to the 19th century than the 21st. For all the laptops and whiteboards, we cling to a steam-age curriculum for a microchip millennium. The Tomlinson report on 14 to 19 education published this week provides an opportunity to challenge this. Tomlinson is not the end of the debate. Not even, as Churchill said, the "beginning of the end". But it is the "end of the beginning".

The report suggests a more rational structure that might ensure esteem is no longer bestowed upon learning in inverse proportion to the practical usefulness of the knowledge and skills involved. Will it work? Will it even get a chance to try?

The wariness of the Westminster Government's immediate response to the report's more iconoclastic proposals is to be expected - and not simply because Labour faces an election soon. The fact that an independent committee had to be set up, in the wake of the A-level debacle of 2002, underlined ministers' nervousness about the big questions - or rather the politically sensitive big answers. Are rising expectations and the consequent widening of achievements compatible with rigour? How can you have both standards over time and curriculum change to meet the developing needs of society? It can, of course, be argued that Wales has already addressed these questions and is "ahead of the game" (see John Graystone's article on opposite page). After all, we are now entering the second year of the so-far-successful Welsh Bac experiment. But it is understandable that some Welsh heads fear that the country's exam system may now get dangerously out of step with England's and that students in Wales may find it harder to gain university places across the border.

The Welsh bac is, however, flexible - and it remains to be seen how dramatic the Tomlinson-inspired changes will be. Westminster's politicians seem as reluctant to abandon A-levels in favour of an untested foreign import as they are to bounce us into the Euro without at least some prospect of public support.

Tomlinson is right to say that we cannot stay where we are. The shrill voices urging us backwards to elitism seem unlikely to prevail against a Government committed to wider opportunity - and all too aware that regression will not provide the skills the economy needs. Nevertheless, reports such as these are rarely enacted in their entirety, if at all.

Cherry-picking the politically easy bits - such as starred grades at A-level, basic skills tests and more vocational qualifications - risks adding to the burden of assessment rather than to the appropriateness of learning.

Teacher assessment in place of GCSE would require training and sensible auditing. But like many of Tomlinson's proposals, it depends most of all upon greater public trust of teachers. Ministers can promote that. But in the end it is something only the profession itself can earn by showing that it knows how best to meet the learning needs of all children and demonstrating its unswerving commitment to doing so.

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