Ministers fail to bite Tomlinson hot potato

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
Our secondary education system owes 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: to institutionalised snobbery that maintains social divisions and the advantages of birth instead of promoting opportunity, social cohesion and teamwork.

The Tomlinson report published this week provides an opportunity to challenge some of this. Tomlinson is not the end of the debate. Not even, as Churchill might have said, the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.

The report sets out important propositions that we all need to face up to.

And it 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 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 first place, in the wake of Labour's 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? And who anyway determines those needs? What, in other words, is secondary education for - and must it be the same for everyone?

In setting up Tomlinson, ministers fumbling with the A-level crisis were desperately playing for time so they kicked for touch. This week sees the ball back on the field with everything still to play for.

So far ministers seem reluctant to pick it up. Politicians are no more at liberty to abandon A-levels in favour of an untested foreign import than they are to bounce us into to the Euro without at least some prospect of public support. That now needs to be painstakingly built, hence the talk of evolution not revolution.

Tomlinson is right about one thing. We cannot stay where we are. And 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.

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 it knows how best to meet the learning needs of all children and demonstrating its unswerving commitment in doing so.

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