Tomlinson? What a try-on

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Like Trinny and Susannah, the 14 to 19 report only covers up the lumpy bits. It should have faced up to making education an end in itself, not simply preparation for work, argues Dennis Hayes

It may be that I'm a voyeur at heart, but the scene I enjoy most in 'What Not to Wear' is when Trinny and Susannah get an occasionally lumpy, occasionally dumpy, but invariably frumpy individual to strip down to her underwear and stand in front of a full length mirror. Although the two presenters may seem sharply critical, they perform wonders and both the audience and friends are impressed by what they see at the end.

Trinny and Susannah's methods provide a good analogy for understanding the proposals in the Tomlinson report on 14 to19 education. For what they do is essentially kind- hearted. They look at an individual and, despite the jocular criticisms, they point out what's good: "You've got nice boobs" or "Great legs!". They emphasise the good and cover up the bad. It works, but it leaves people essentially as they were.

That's the essence of the proposals in the report. It will give young people a diploma for being what they are. This is not obvious because Tomlinson is a bureaucrats' delight, with pages and pages of complex changes. With all that potential for developmental training and restructuring it's no wonder that quangos are in favour. Further education lecturers may even come to support it in the hope that it will bring them financial parity with schoolteachers. But there is no reason to support anything in the report if you really want students to achieve.

Perhaps a more philosophical way of understanding Tomlinson is to ask what vision of young people or their potential it presents. Here, the report is silent. Although there is rhetoric about "stretching" individuals, the report is, without a vision of an education for all, essentially a remedial affair sorting out a series of alleged educational and personal failings, largely in response to political and business criticisms.

In many ways Tomlinson is the culmination of Jim Callaghan's Great Debate on education of 1976, when the then Prime Minister invited business to influence the curriculum. The poor view that bosses have of their workers seems to have been simply accepted by the former Chief Inspector for Schools. There is a real failure to celebrate the value of education itself.

Education involves mastering the disciplines that frame our understanding of the world and this should be open to everyone. Education is too valuable to be offered only to a motivated few. Like the superficial changes brought about by Trinny and Susannah, the report flatters young people but adopts basically the view that they are not up to the demands of education.

Throughout it you find, between the lines, a concept of young people as unable to rise to intellectual challenges, as being restricted in their potential because of their circumstances, or to be in need of therapeutic help and counselling.

Just consider paragraph 33, which declares: "The current system works well for many. We want a system that works well for all." In reality this means that Tomlinson is building a new 14 to19 education structure not for the "many", but around the few. The consequence will almost certainly be detrimental to everyone.

This is already obvious in what happens to maths, science and languages in the new "core". The idea is that as these are troubling subjects for the few, let's get rid of them for all. Of course, those that are interested can do them and some may, if they are that sort of person.

At the heart of offering a diploma for being yourself is the emphasis put on the "personal", whether on personal guidance, or the extended project, which is described as a "personalised space" in which young people can pursue particular interests.

The personal and the trivial are also written up in the "transcript" that will accompany the final diploma. Alongside the development of a "personalised" curriculum based on adolescent and, therefore, whimsical choice, the diploma could just recognise and make permanent what most young people grow out of given the chance.

If in doubt, look at the case studies in Annex M. Here are three of these pieces of fiction.

Greg is good at maths and he gets a masters degree in that subject, then goes into teaching!

Sally is bright, but a single mum, and ends up interested in a getting a childcare qualification, but turns towards a career in catering!

Finally, there is Danni, who gets sent to prison for her involvement with drugs. After guidance, she ends up taking lots of courses and going to university to study engineering. She even talks to prison officers about how the diploma has changed her life!

The message is: you are what you are. If you are good at maths, you do maths, if you are a single mum, you can aspire to childcare or cooking. The final example may seem different, but, although it is dressed up as an educational fantasy about transformation, it is really a picture of the hoped- for therapeutic elements of the diploma aimed at a few of the few.

Tomlinson aimed to do away with the academic and vocational divide and to resolve a host of other "problems". In this, it must be judged a success.

By adopting a Trinny and Susannah approach, and covering over the lumpy bits, the report does away with educational divisions, with failure and success, and recognises each individual for what they are.

No matter what the faults in the present system, awarding diplomas for being what you are, is unlikely to inspire, and much less likely to fool young people.

To help them cope with an uncertain future, I'd say what's needed is education, not preparation for work.

These days liberal education is often seen as old fashioned, but in fact it is very modern; preparing people for work in this changing world is not education, but training for a job, to know your place. What could be more old-fashioned than that?

Dennis Hayes is head of the centre for professional learning at Canterbury Christ Church University College

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