What can we learn from Tomlinson?

25th March 2005 at 00:00
A framework of awards is probably the best hope of bridging theexams divide, say Ron Tuck and John Hart

Where was deep disappointment across the English education system last month at the announcement that ministers south of the border were rejecting the core of the Tomlinson committee's recommendations on 14-19 reform. It was widely seen as a missed opportunity to address the historic problem of the academic-vocational divide.

But would Tomlinson have worked anyway? The history of Higher Still suggests not. However, here as south of the border, there are still advocates of baccalaureate-type systems. Should we be considering something similar?

The Howie committee's report of 1992 had proposed a European-style academic baccalaureate and a vocational "Scotcert". The proposals were decisively rejected in consultation on the grounds that they would create a divisive "twin-track" system. The challenge for HMIs and civil servants within the Scottish Office was to develop a unified system that nevertheless dealt with the problems Howie had identified.

The model we developed was remarkably similar to Tomlinson: a five-level system of diplomas, which could be academic, vocational or a mixture. These proposals never saw the light of day. The Secretary of State, while accepting all other elements of the package, rejected the idea that the currency of group awards should replace Highers; hence Higher Still. The parallel with Tomlinson is exact.

The Higher Still report did, however, permit the development of a voluntary system of Scottish Group Awards (SGAs). Some of us hoped that schools and colleges would see the merits of a common group award structure for academic and vocational subjects and that gradually SGAs would become the recognised qualifications currency. This never happened. Was the failure due to the fact that group awards were only half-heartedly pursued? Or is the concept of a unified group award system inherently flawed?

Some university vice-chancellors may support Tomlinson-type proposals; admissions officers are likely to be less enthusiastic. The current system of university selection is based on grades gained in individual subjects.

It enables universities to specify required subjects and, if they wish, to exclude certain subjects from their reckoning.

Universities will also want to look at the specifics of attainment within any diploma. A points score or grade gained in plumbing or motor vehicle engineering won't be seen as equivalent to the same points or grade gained in maths or history. And when they do discriminate in this way, is this reactionary anti-vocational prejudice? Sometimes it might be. On the other hand, vocational subjects cannot always be designed to include the cognitive competences of academic subjects without creating the kind of academic drift that defeats their vocational purpose.

Then there is assessment. A unified group award probably needs a common approach to assessment. Should assessment be external, internal or a combination? While there are forms of external assessment other than written examinations, factors both of cost and reliability tend to lead to an exam-dominated system and to an emphasis on theory that may not be wholly appropriate in all vocational subjects. And as we all know, there are many students for whom formal examinations act as a deterrent.

Internal assessment, on the other hand, enjoys less public confidence (rightly or wrongly) than external. The introduction of unit-based internal assessment in school subjects has met resistance not only in Scotland but in New Zealand and South Africa as well. This is because it tends to lead to high levels of teacher and student workload, although much less so in many vocational subjects where observation of performance is integral to effective learning and teaching.

A final issue. In a group award system, what should be the common core of subjects and skills? Obviously, there are strong arguments for core skills (or something like them) to be a mandatory aspect of all diplomas. But beyond that? In our experience, it is very difficult to construct a rationale for making any particular subject compulsory, regardless of the academic or vocational aims of the student.

Now, in one sense, all these difficulties are far from insuperable. You could create a common system of diplomas at four or five levels covering all academic and vocational subjects. All diplomas at a given level would be equivalent by virtue of the fact that they represented the same volume and level of learning, rather than because there was any common core.

(Let's leave to one side the issues involved in equating different types of learning.)

The assessment methodology would be determined on a fit-for-purpose basis, so that there could be variations across subjects and diplomas as to the relative emphasis on internal or external assessment. The scores or grades for individual subjects would be available to be used by selectors.

However, would this end the academic-vocational divide? Individual courses would still be visible and used. There would be differences in assessment, and people would make value judgments depending on their particular views on assessment. And the various diploma programmes would have very different kinds of content. Our view is that most people would conclude that this was just the old system in a new group award packaging.

So, what's the answer? First, we have to recognise that parity of esteem cannot be achieved just by redesigning the qualifications system. It is also necessary to challenge prejudice and lack of respect for different educational traditions.

Second, the focus should be on the overall framework rather than diplomas.

The vision should be of a unified system which nevertheless embraces diversity of educational purposes. The most important thing is that each qualification should be fit for purpose and should enable successful candidates to achieve their goals.

The "fit-for-purpose" principle means that we should not over-emphasise the need for commonality of design across different qualifications. Our strategy for ending the academic-vocational divide should focus on the continuing development of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework to create effective progression routes and credit transfer between different types of qualification.

In England, the opportunity has not yet been missed. In Scotland, it has yet to be fully grasped.

Ron Tuck and John Hart, formerly of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, are educational consultants.

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