'We have to stretch them more'
When the Tomlinson Report hit people's desks last month, they could have been forgiven for thinking education begins at 14. But amid the headlines about diplomas, gold standards, key skills and exit routes, there were proposals that could have important consequences for the earlier phases of education, most significantly for key stage 3.
Tucked deep in Chapter 13 lies recommendation 30, calling for a review of key stage 3 to ensure it "prepares young people to make the most of opportunities post-14". Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, urges the development of new systems to identify and measure every pupil's "latent potential" to build their confidence and motivation and help them make the right choices at 14. And, it goes on to say, such assessments should underpin pupils' individual learning plans and work- experience placements, and form a baseline for evaluating diplomas.
The impact is likely to be significant. KS3 , a notoriously tricky phase in a pupil's life, becomes the foundation for choices that will affect the rest of their education.
Mike Tomlinson and his team urge ministers to maintain a broad curriculum up to 14 to give pupils a wide choice of diploma and to help them understand the subjects and vocational areas where their strengths lie.
That vocational aspect is key: "We expect that by 14, young people will have experienced a range of teaching and learning styles, including some associated with vocational learning, and to understand which best suit them," the report reads.
Ministers have long been aware of problems in the first three years of secondary school; that's why they set up the KS3 strategy. Tomlinson says they should build on these initiatives. But the 14 to 19 reforms could expose these problems still further.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says that if the reforms are intended to provide a fast track for able pupils as well as cater for the vocationally inclined, then they could founder unless certain issues are addressed at KS3.
"My fear is that KS3 isn't sufficiently stretching and doesn't give as secure a foundation as it might for youngsters who will be entering a new 14 to 19 system," he says. "If it doesn't (stretch them more), then I'm not sure they're going to enter Tomlinson's brave new world as prepared as they should be."
But the report was right to urge a re-examination of assessment, he believes. "The way performance indicators at KS3 concentrate on levels 5 and 6 is completely unhelpful to any attempt to stretch the more able children."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, agrees that testing at 14 will become much more significant. "Tests at 14 at the moment are just a checkpoint," he says. He urges teacher assessment over further external testing at 14.
But if teachers need a greater awareness of pupils' talents, then children will need better support to understand their options. Mr Dunford says careers guidance will need a big shake-up, bringing together school advisers and the Connexions service. "Connexions, logically, will no longer be a 14 to 19 service, but something that serves the needs of schools and is in their control," he says. "One of the dangers of the system is that we have to be quite sure that pupils aren't shutting off future possibilities by premature choices."
Mr Hart suggests earlier work experience for pupils, but says improved literacy and numeracy remained the real key to enabling them to make informed choices about vocational routes.
Tomlinson admits to not having fully considered the implications for the 11 to 14 curriculum. One driver will be the need to prepare pupils for the extended projects that will be a feature of the 14 to 19 diplomas. Study skills, already a growing feature of secondary education, will have a higher profile.
Indeed, the report expects schools to have "laid the foundations" for pupils by 14 to learn independently and in groups, and to understand how to tackle different tasks.
Will this be an extra burden on schools which find themselves of necessity reforming the key stage 3 curriculum as they introduce the new diplomas? Mr Dunford is sanguine. "The first thing that schools did when GCSE was introduced was to tailor the KS3 curriculum to the needs of the new courses. We did it in 1986, and we'll do it in 2006."