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Give youth a chance

All our young people deserve the opportunity to develop their abilities and skills, says Mike Tomlinson

It is vital that all 14 to 19-year-olds have access to programmes of learning which motivate them, are matched to their aspirations and abilities and stretch them to achieve as highly as possible.

At the moment we have a curriculum where assessment drives content, telling us more about how good our young people are at exams than it does about their ability to progress and succeed as learners, employees and adults.

Most teachers make effective use of the flexibilities in the curriculum to cover subjects in a rigorous and exciting way. We need to build on this to deliver a 14-19 curriculum which ensures that all young people leave education and training with the knowledge, skills and attributes they need to succeed in life.

All learners, particularly the most able, must be stretched and given more scope for in-depth exploration. Achievement in a range of types and modes of learning, tailored to the needs, interests and aspirations of each individual, must be recognised by high-quality, credible qualifications.

At the same time, standards must be maintained and qualifications must provide a sound basis on which higher education and employers can choose between candidates.

The interim report of the working group on 14-19 reform, which will be published next Tuesday, will propose a coherent approach to young people's learning, in which the curriculum is supported by assessment that is fit for purpose and through which the above imperatives can be met.

Learning within and across disciplines chosen by young people will be underpinned by the development of a common core of knowledge, skills and experiences, including communication, mathematical skills and information and communications technology. The common skills demanded by employers and HE will enjoy greater prominence.

Already some employers and HE complain that young people do not develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they require. Learners arrive at university with the specific knowledge suited to their degrees, but some do not have the skills necessary to write an essay, undertake research, solve problems or manage their own learning.

And the "knowledge economy" demands ever-higher levels of knowledge, skills and flexibility. Today's young people will need to be able to cope with changing demands which will require them to have broad knowledge and transferable skills, as well as specific training. These are the foundations of lifelong learning.

It is not enough to develop these only among some in the population, they are capabilities that all will need. Our current system of education excludes too many young people. More than a quarter of 17-year-olds were not in education or training in 2001. To tackle this, we need a system that provides valued qualifications and progression routes for all 14 to 19-year-olds.

This means building on the best of the existing system, including the A-levels and vocational programmes which provide well-established routes to HE and employment. But it also means tackling what is wrong with the system. Low status and fragmentation of the vocational track, the variable quality of some qualifications, and the adverse effects of large volumes of mechanistic assessment on the curriculum, learners and teachers are all issues addressed by next week's report.

An overall reduction in assessment load must and will be real. It cannot simply be a case of pushing more on to teachers. The working group recognises the role professionals can play in leading assessment of learning as well as assessment for learning.

Our intention is to make best use of this backed by appropriate training and recognition, without compromising the important relationship between teacher and learner or over-burdening the teachers.

After all, it is the quality of what goes on in the classroom, workplace or training room that will determine the success of any changes to the 14-19 curriculum and qualifications.

That is why we are seeking evolutionary change as part of a long-term programme of reform, which will draw on current best practice to secure quality, stretch and choice for learners and teachers alike.

Mike Tomlinson is leading the inquiry into 14-19 education

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