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Broccoli that tastes like chocolate pudding

I loved the headline on last week's TES front page: "Ministers baulk at GCSE reforms". My wife and I adopted "baulky" as our favourite word when we had small children. Like most parents of our generation, we were dedicated students of Dr Spock's child-rearing guides. And Spock frequently warned, in his folksy way, that if you did certain things to a child - trying to feed it greens for example - "he or she may become baulky".

Faced with the Tomlinson report, ministers remind me of nothing so much as baulky children faced with lavish helpings of crisp broccoli. They have known all along that their parents are health-conscious vegetarians. Yet still they affect surprise when a dark green substance arrives on their plates.

Likewise, ministers must surely have realised that GCSEs and A-levels are about as fashionable in schools as Marks Spencer is on the high street and that anybody with Mike Tomlinson's background in education would recommend scrapping them. They must also realise that the need for a single diploma for 14 to 19-year-olds, creating a common framework for academic and vocational studies, has been educational orthodoxy for at least a decade. Ministers nevertheless express shock when exactly such a thing is proposed. Verily, politicians are children, being, as someone once said (albeit also of journalists), insecure egotists.

Mr Tomlinson's report is almost the smartest of the past half-century. Not only did he buy off the universities with A-plus and double A-plus grades so they can more easily select the brightest students. He also bought off employers with a compulsory test in basic literacy, numeracy and computing - unless they pass that test, teenagers will leave school (as I understand it) with no qualification whatever, not even the equivalent of a solitary E grade in GCSE.

The genius of this idea is not only that it gives employers just what they have been demanding from time immemorial but also that more young people would leave school without a certificate than do so now, leaving those same employers, as well as MPs and the Daily Mail, with plenty to continue moaning about. Brilliant.

Mr Tomlinson, however, wasn't quite smart enough. He should have put something outrageously silly in his report - skiing tests for all 15-year-olds, say. Politicians and newspapers could then have denounced that while all other proposals slipped through unnoticed. Mr Tomlinson, I fear, is an innocent on media and political matters. He does not understand that if you produce a report composed wholly of good sense, the papers have to headline the good sense and somehow turn it into scandalous nonsense.

Nor does he understand that ministers can never accept a report in full: they must put their own stamp on it lest anybody think they are wimps and pushovers.

Acclaim from the professionals (and I cannot remember a report which has had so little criticism from schools, unions, colleges and universities) isn't a plus point; it's a decided negative because, in this Government's view, professionalism and expertise are fronts for "producer interests".

The same attitude led ministers to reject advice on Iraq from anybody who knew about the Middle East.

At least the Tory leader, Michael Howard, is thinking straight. He wants to keep A-levels and GCSEs and return to an A grade that rewards fixed percentages of candidates. This is the polar opposite of Mr Tomlinson's proposal, which is for credits taken by pupils as and when they are ready.

Mr Howard wants old-fashioned competition to identify academic victors and give them the spoils. Mr Tomlinson wants to start from scratch, with exams designed for a century in which the vast majority are likely to continue in education to 18 and beyond.

Ministers, as usual, want a third way muddle - modernity in a traditionalist package. In other words, they might be persuaded to eat broccoli but only if it looks and tastes like chocolate pudding.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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