Why Tomlinson is doing us a favour

The Tomlinson recommendations are the right ones and they will work. The proposed reforms mirror the curriculum and qualifications framework that we offer here through our Newham college access diploma framework (NewCAD). We have been successfully teaching from this type of modular, credit-based curriculum since 1998.

More than a third of our 25,000-plus learners from age 14 to adult now use this flexible framework, and the number is growing each year. NewCAD is offered at six levels of attainment (mapped to the national qualifications framework), in the form of more than 900 units in all subject areas. It offers guaranteed progression up to level 3 (GCSE grade A-C equivalent) using both full diploma and certificate qualifications.

Mike Tomlinson's proposed reforms basically pose a key question to our national education service: either we maintain a system that is built around the needs of a minority of learners - the most able 40 per cent - or we redesign our system around the demands of an inclusive society and economy. This involves tailoring learning opportunities to the full range of individual needs and giving people and businesses choice over what to study and how. This demands a far more sophisticated approach than is used at present and far greater flexibility.

The majority of our learners come to us with few, if any, qualifications and often with a poor experience of education. They include 14 to 16-year-olds who for a variety of reasons are no longer in school; the 50 per cent or more of school-leavers without the qualifications and skills needed to progress and successfully complete the next level; and a mixture of adults.

Our experience is that these learners have one thing in common: they have ambition, motivation and talent, and they can achieve vocational or academic qualifications if they are provided with appropriate opportunities and support. It is neither idealistic nor futile to have an education system within which everyone is given appropriate opportunities to achieve.

On the contrary, this is what we mean by an inclusive society. It's not a question of "prizes for all" but one of fair allocation of resources, effort and opportunity for all, not just the few. The impact will be a better educated and more skilled population, and a more vibrant economy and society.

What Mike Tomlinson has recognised is the power of designing the curriculum and qualifications structures more flexibly around people's and (by implication) business's actual circumstances and needs. This is how we designed NewCAD, by learning from our customers, looking at what they were aiming to achieve and designing courses for that purpose. The Tomlinson reforms are a great opportunity for 14-19 education and training. We now have a historic opportunity to transform the system through the parallel introduction of Tomlinson's proposed reforms, together with a fully aligned 19-plus credit framework, and the reform of vocational qualifications (both part of the Government's skills strategy).

What we have learned through the use of such a framework is that a focus on inclusion, flexibility and progression results in better learning for all.

Progression becomes more rational and, indeed, an entitlement (compare that to the farce that many young people now face when trying to secure places to study A-levels). Learning becomes more structured as modules of achievement are defined, assessed and accumulated at each stage.

Flexibility becomes a hallmark of quality, ensuring that education and training are experienced as opportunities, rather than, as is too often the case, barriers or a confusion of pathways and rules.

Finally, there is an opportunity within these reforms to re-empower teaching and other learning support professionals as curriculum developers; and to re-build trust in teacher assessment. This will be good for learners, and will attract more people to work and pursue careers in lifelong learning.

Whether it is 14-19, adult learning, or workforce development, we need these reforms to better meet people's needs, and to provide a lifelong education system that helps us fulfil rather than frustrate ambition and aspiration.

Martin Tolhurst is principal of Newham college in east London

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