The professor who knows his dahlias

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Lucy Hodges meets Professor John Tomlinson as he prepares to publish his report on special needs in further education. Professor John Tomlinson, director of Warwick's Institute of Education, chairs his inquiry into special needs in further education with the same vigour as he tends his dahlias.

He is a great grower of dahlias just as he is a great chairman of committees. Committee members are nurtured, research commissioned, outside constituencies consulted. Ideas are all taken seriously and stored away in his brain.

Professor Tomlinson, 63, is superintending the three-year project which will shortly be completed. More than 1,000 pieces of evidence have been submitted. A report will be delivered to the Further Education Funding Council in July before being published this autumn.

Professor Tomlinson is bashful about what his committee will say but reveals he heard repeatedly that the law is unsatisfactory. For example, it is unclear who is responsible for transporting students around, and what the difference is between care or therapy and education. Legal soundings have been taken and this advice will be published. It should clarify where the law places responsibility or is unsatisfactory.

The report will be telling the FEFC how its funding, planning, auditing and inspecting could be made more sensitive to the requirements of students with special needs. And it will tell colleges how they could improve.

"There is an enormous amount of very dedicated work going on by teachers but, as the inspectors have revealed, it's not as good as the work that goes on in other parts of further education, partly because management don't value it enough," he says.

"It's partly because the teachers themselves are not well enough trained. And it's partly because the relationships between the further education sector and all the voluntary organisations and other services, health and social work, which need to work so closely together to help these students are not well enough developed. So we're going to say very clearly that there's an enormous amount of staff development to be done."

The report will also emphasize how people learn, rather than labelling them in terms of their handicaps. It will stress what assessment is needed so that students can see how they're doing. The aim is to help students lead more independent lives.

The inquiry was set up by Sir William Stubbs, outgoing chief executive of the FEFC. Sir William decided an inquiry was needed. Hence the committee chaired by Professor Tomlinson, his old friend from the local education authority days.

The committee have met 21 times. Committee members testify to the professor's ability to get the best out of people. He is admired for his intellect and his people skills. Others who have watched him in action say he is brilliant at ensuring everyone thinks they have had their say. "He cares and he would make you think he cares," comments one veteran education observer. "At the end of the day he goes away and does what he wants or he thinks best."

"I was sceptical that someone who was not known to me as being expert in an area I had been in for 10 years could do what was needed - understand the issues and hold together quite a disparate group," says Deborah Cooper, a member of the committee and director of Skill, the National Bureau for Handicapped Students. Professor Tomlinson was able to do both.

None of which surprises his old friend Professor Harry Judge, former head of the department of educational studies at Oxford University. "He's a delightful man, full of ideas, sensitive, intelligent and scholarly," he says.

After getting a degree at Manchester University (he was the first in his family to go into higher education), Tomlinson taught briefly before entering local education administration.

"I could see that was the way in which you might contribute on a larger scale to the improvement of the whole," he says.

His first job in educational administration was in Shropshire. Then came Lanc-ashire where he was in charge of reorganising the county on comprehensive lines and became a champion of comprehensive education. He still holds to that belief. "But it does require the curriculum and teaching methods to be appropriate and teachers therefore to be extremely well-trained," he says.

He despairs of a system which casts large numbers of young people, especially young men, into a world without jobs, and he bemoans the casualisation of labour and the anxiety engendered by the new competitive climate. He talks longingly of a society which values social cohesion.

"I think if you can give the children that experience at school and while growing up in their formative years, they will sense its value and want it later. It you deny them that, and make animals of them, you will have an animal society."

As a man on the left of the political centre, Tomlinson has not been in tune with the zeitgeist of the 1980s and 1990s. His golden years were as chief education officer of Cheshire from 1972 to 1984. "What we created in those days was a value system which pervaded the whole of the service," he says. "And that value system was that youngsters and their families are the most important resource any society has got."

In Cheshire he set up field centres for children, he emphasised nursery education and consulting teachers. The county went comprehensive while he was chief, a move he embraced enthusiastically.

During his time at Cheshire, he was also founding chairman of the Further Education Curriculum Review and Development Unit. He was chairman of the Schools Council before it was axed unceremoniously by the Government. Tomlinson is not apologetic about the Schools Council.

At its best it was a "marvellous" organisation, he says, where teachers were brought together with LEAs, the Government and the public to sort out the fundamental purposes of education. At the end of his stint at the top in Cheshire, the county council swung to the Right and Tomlinson took early retirement. Warwick University was looking for someone to put its institute of education on the map. Who better than John Tomlinson, the thinking man's CEO?

He is credited with having done the job with his typical blend of energy and efficiency. He cites, in particular, the institute's relationship with teachers, schools and local education authorities, improved in-service training for teachers, and authorship of articles and books, including one called The Control of Education.

His department was awarded a grade 4, which is one below the highest in the universities' research assessment exercise and is shooting for a grade 5 this year.

In summer 1997 John Tomlinson retires from Warwick to a part-time job as secretary of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers. In the old days, a lifetime of such distinguished public service would have been rewarded with a knighthood, if not a university vice-chancellorship. Professor Tomlinson will have to take comfort in his dahlias and looking back on many jobs well done.

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