Editor's comment

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Why rush to judgement over the future of A-levels? In the 10-year gestation period for the Tomlinson-style diploma, they should play a vital role in shaping it - eventually, maybe, to wither on the educational vine.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's decision to set them apart from the diploma is a snub to colleges, since it was here that the best ideas behind Sir Mike's recommendations on vocational education were forged.

For 30 years, repeated attempts to reform vocational studies alongside A-levels have led to the same results. One, vocational students are seen as "also-rans". Two, A-level students are denied breadth and any real "practical" development of mind. True, A-levels have changed beyond recognition and reach a much wider group. However, the fundamental elitism that implicitly denigrates vocational study remains.

But Ruth Kelly's decision has less to do with education than with the coming general election. Electioneering brings out the Blair Government's innate conservative instincts over education - the panic about what radical change might do to the middle-England vote.

Maybe, after the election, the Government of the day will listen to and act on the judgement of people who know better than politicians do. But that is doubtful. If the Tories get in, A-levels are safe. If Blair returns, policy will continue to be shaped by the likes of his personal adviser Andrew Adonis, whose vision of FE stretches little beyond sixth-form colleges (excellent though they are).

The 14-19 white paper, analysed on the news and comment pages of The TES and FE Focus this week, talks of "comprehensive education" rather than comprehensive schools. There is no better model for this than the FE sector. Colleges such as City Islington and Knowsley already are "doing" the Tomlinson stuff - and were praised for "outstanding" performance by inspectors.

Ministers should not be surprised at the overwhelming anger from virtually all employer, management and staff organisations this week. Most dismiss the decision as "cynical" pre-election posturing. Even the stalwarts of industry who have backed this government's educational ideas are angry.

Most of all, however, there is deep disappointment over Labour's tepid response. As John Brennan, Association of Colleges' chief executive, concludes: "The white paper is a wasted opportunity. Instead of introducing 'a radical transformation' of vocational education, Ruth Kelly has done little more than describe what is already offered by colleges."

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