Tomlinson limousine requires a good motor

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Staying-on rates post-16 are not likely to rise with businesses happyto take on less well-qualified recruits, writes Ewart Keep

As the Tomlinson working group is discovering, in politics, timing is all.

Their misfortune has been to launch a call for wholesale reform in the run-up to a general election - a moment when politicians and the press are obsessed with what will and will not please "middle England".

Although the working group tried to forge a broad consensus that would lend weight to their proposals, the coalition never embraced the higher reaches of the political world. Perhaps we should not be too surprised by the early tendency of ministers to try to cherry pick from what is supposed to be a coherent package of reforms. It should be remembered that the New Labour government rejected out of hand the central recommendation of the Dearing report on higher education on the day that report was published.

Two key issues relating to employers and the labour market are raised by the Tomlinson recommendations, and by the government reactions to them.

First, if the Government insists on allowing GCSEs and A-levels to continue as recognisable and free-standing qualifications that simply sit inside a bigger box called the diploma, they risk undermining much of what Tomlinson aims to achieve. To do so would enable employers and higher education institutions to carry on as before, continuing to specify recruitment requirements in terms of GCSEs and A-levels.

If this happened, the message to young people (and to some learning providers) would be to aim for required qualifications, treat them as free-standing ends in themselves, and ignore the over-arching diploma and elements such as the extended project and the vaguely-specified common knowledge, skills and attributes. The fate of the National Record of Achievement shows what might befall the diploma.

A second, and much larger problem is the accusation of over-selling how much the proposed reforms can improve England's relative performance on 16-19 participation rates. It is argued that changes to curriculum and assessment will improve educational pathways, which in turn will generate rates of participation and achievement comparable with those in other leading developed countries. This may not be a realistic assumption.

Decisions about post-compulsory participation are influenced by employers' recruitment patterns and the economic incentives that these create for young people. Many countries with high levels of 16-19 participation achieve this without having the sophisticated, modern pedagogies, curriculum design and assessment models that it is claimed are essential here to deliver better participation.

This is because most other developed nations have a norm of labour market entry that requires far more young people to have achieved level 3 qualifications. In some cases this is underpinned by cultural assumptions and long-established employer preference (for example, in Scandinavia and South-East Asia). In others, labour market regulation such as "licence to practise" requirements mean that most occupations require individuals to possess appropriate qualifications. The best-known example is Germany, but such requirements are also quite extensive in the US.

In England, the picture is very different. There exists a labour market with a fair number of jobs that appear to carry no specific qualification requirement. The role played by qualifications in employers' recruitment and selection is often limited and sometimes non-existent. The value of many vocational qualifications (at level 2 and below) in terms of subsequent wage premiums is often nil.

Given these conditions it is hardly surprising that many young people choose to curtail their studies and either not participate, or participate only briefly after the compulsory phase of education. Indeed, given the often very poor economic returns on many lower-level courses it is perhaps surprising that as many youngsters as do choose to pursue these offerings.

To put it another way, it is highly possible that current levels of post-16 participation are actually fairly well-matched with underlying patterns of labour market demand for qualifications.

The Tomlinson working group noted these problems, but because its remit was drawn in such a way as to exclude labour market issues, it had little to offer by way of answer except a belief that longer courses and better pathways to achievement at level 3 would encourage more young people to participate for longer. The danger must be that on post-compulsory participation the Tomlinson proposals set education up to fail. By limiting the issues to curriculum and assessment, there is a serious risk of educators being set an impossible mission - reform that lacks the support of positive economic and labour market incentives. The whole of Tomlinson's recommendations might be implemented and yet we could still find ourselves at the lower end of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development league tables on post-16 participation.

We are in danger of crafting a beautifully-engineered curriculum and assessment limousine that ends up being powered by a badly tuned one-litre engine of economic and labour market incentives. As the debate is currently structured, the likelihood must be that, yet again, blame for any failure of the reforms to boost participation would fall on the heads of teachers and lecturers.

Professor Ewart Keep is deputy director of the Economic and Social Research Council's research centre on skills, knowledge and organisational performance at the University of Warwickl A more detailed discussion of these issues can be found on the Nuffield review of 14-19 education and training website:


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