Tomlinson 2.0: Sir Mike calls for KS3 assessment

1st May 2015 at 01:00
And his 2005 report may have inspired Labour's 14-19 plans

The architect of a landmark plan to radically overhaul 14-19 education has called for new national assessments for 14-year-olds.

Sir Mike Tomlinson (pictured below), whose vision of a baccalaureate-style system was rejected by the Labour government a decade ago, said new certificates were needed at the end of Year 9 because it had increasingly become a point of departure for pupils transferring to a more vocational curriculum.

His comments came days after shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt revealed that he favoured moving towards a baccalaureate-style "14-19 curriculum and qualification framework", incorporating academic and technical education.

The Labour MP has reportedly acknowledged that his vision owes much to the Tomlinson recommendations, which were turned down in 2005 by prime minister at the time Tony Blair, despite widespread support from across the education sector.

Mr Hunt has questioned the future of GCSEs, saying he "would not be surprised, or indeed saddened" if, in a decade's time, the government had started to phase them out. Sir Mike also believes the GCSE's existence should be debated.

Reflecting on his 2004 blueprint for 14-19 education, Sir Mike explained to TES how he would update it for today. His backing for national assessments for 14-year-olds is the most eye-catching departure from earlier proposals.

He said: "At the age of 14, young people will increasingly choose subjects and pathways, and what I think is at least worth discussing is: should we have some sort of certification at the end of key stage 3, particularly around subjects they are no longer going to study?

"It would be a progress check for moving post-14 and it would also be a recognition of any achievement, attainment and progress in subjects they are no longer going to study."

The new checks could be largely teacher-assessed, with external moderation, Sir Mike added, but they needed to be nationally recognised and supervised if they were to have "credibility with the student, the parent and employers".

Much of Mr Hunt's latest thinking sounds uncannily similar to the approach being advocated by Sir Mike: they both agree on the reasons for change, the raising of the compulsory education and training age to 18, and 14 emerging as the age when pupils decide to take an academic, technical or vocational route.

They also appear to agree on the solution of an overarching 14-19 baccalaureate encompassing all "pathways".

Sir Mike said that although he had not spoken directly to Mr Hunt, he had been in touch with the two major parties and added that Labour's plan was "good to hear".

The end of GCSEs?

In 2005 it was a looming general election that apparently persuaded Mr Blair to reject much of the Tomlinson plan. The Conservatives had, late in the day, dropped their support for the proposals and instead campaigned to save the A-level. Mr Blair, fearing that being seen to axe the "gold standard" qualification would lose him votes, rejected what many regarded as a once-in-a-generation chance to change education for the better.

But Sir Mike, appointed by the government last year as education commissioner for Birmingham in the wake of the "Trojan Horse" controversy, said that he never gave up on his ideas. Nor, he told TES, did the schools, colleges, universities and employers he still speaks to. "Unlike many things that are over 10 years old, there is still a view out there that an opportunity was missed," he said.

A decade on, in the countdown to another general election, the Labour front bench now appears to back the Tomlinson vision as a vote winner.

Mr Hunt's announcement was cautious: he talked of starting a debate and things changing over the course of a decade. But Sir Mike has always stated that he favours long-term evolution, not revolution. If anything, he told TES that Labour might be going too far, should it scrap the GCSE without putting some form of "progress check" for 16-year-olds in its place.

Sir Mike called for a "common core" of knowledge to equip students with the literacy and numeracy skills demanded by employers, citing the example of Royal Navy recruits who "can't read the instructions on the guns and equipment that they are working with".

"Interestingly, the services get the kids up to a good reading speed within three months," he added. "So it can be done."

Demanding that pupils endlessly resit maths and English GCSEs was not the answer, he insisted. "Not if, as at present, you have got to learn 15 bloody poems but meanwhile you can't communicate."

Three `pathways'

A major difference between the original Tomlinson report and his ideas today is more clearly defined "pathways" from 14. Sir Mike places greater emphasis on a third, work-based option, alongside the academic and the technical, in recognition of the growing number of apprenticeships.

Sir Mike stressed that it should be "relatively easy and straightforward" for pupils to transfer between pathways. The assessments envisaged at 14 would ensure students were on an "appropriate" pathway, he said.

With those pathways echoing the old tripartite grammar, technical and secondary modern school division, the idea is likely to provoke fears of a return to selection, at 14 instead of 11.

But Sir Mike rejected the idea. He said that all three options could even be provided within the same school, highlighting the example of the 14-19 university technical colleges, which he helped to develop and, he believes, best articulate his vision. Only institutions that had the right facilities, links to relevant workplaces and staff with the appropriate experience should be able to offer a technical education, he added.

The lack of such conditions was one reason he believed that the ill-fated work-related diplomas, introduced by Labour after his report, failed. They were doomed, Sir Mike explained, because Mr Blair only accepted parts of his plan, leaving an "incoherent whole".

"There are times when it doesn't matter what [the] party [is], and I have worked with every secretary of state since Keith Joseph - there is always that political dimension," he said. "In these sorts of situations the decisions are not always made on the basis of logic."

Sir Mike's 2015 vision for 14-19 education

Fourteen-year-olds would take some kind of national assessment to certify their achievements to date.

They would then choose between three well-defined "pathways" (academic, technical or work-based, including apprenticeships), which they would be able to transfer between.

Each pathway would include a "common core of general education" to be studied to 18, including the numeracy and literacy that employers require.

Pupils would finish with an overarching baccalaureate-style qualification.

Existing qualifications such as A-levels would form the "building blocks" of a final baccalaureate and would still lead to individual grades, but not individual certificates.

GCSEs could cease to exist but some sort of progress check at 16 would remain.

Evolution not revolution.

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