Mike Tomlinson's report on education provision for 14 to 19 year olds in England and Wales is timely.
The introduction of the new A-level examinations was a fiasco, and there is widespread disillusionment among both teachers and pupils with a school system dominated by tests and targets.
The curriculum is increasingly streamlined by the pressure on schools to meet government targets in Sats, GCSEs and A-levels. Local education authorities, headteachers and those working at the chalkface are encouraged to see children only in terms of their potential to hit the magical five A* to C grade GCSEs, either sending a school to the top of the league tables or down into the murky world of emergency inspections, special measures and the threat of closure.
The report's realistic assessment of some of the problems with the current system is welcome. But in not breaking clearly from the priorities of New Labour and big business it falls well short of what's needed. Tomlinson, a former Ofsted chief inspector of schools, criticises the amount of testing pupils currently undergo - the Times Educational Supplement reports that a pupil sitting eight GCSEs and three A-levels will have to prepare for 42 separate exams at present.
Tomlinson advocates the scrapping of the current system of GCSEs, A-levels and/or vocational qualifications entirely, and replacing it with a diploma system much more in line with Europe, Canada and the US. This diploma would be available to pupils at four levels, and learning would have three key elements. A core of English, maths, and information and computer technology would have minimum standards that all students would have to reach to 'graduate' at 18. The 'main' learning would be either a traditional academic mix of subjects probably a little broader than the current A-levels, a more vocational path including work-based learning, or a mixture of the two. The third element Tomlinson keenly outlines is an extended project assessed in 'creative and innovative ways' - a piece of art, perhaps, or a performance, as well as more traditional essays and projects.
A major shake-up in assessment is proposed in the report. External examinations would be drastically reduced for all students, with a much wider range of assessment to be used across the age range. This would be appreciated by the vast majority of people working in our schools and colleges - potentially allowing a broader range of skills to be taught in more stimulating and engaging ways. Only the advanced diploma would be mainly externally marked, presumably to pacify Oxbridge and the Russell Group of 'elite' universities - who will be delighted with the introduction of A+ and A++ at the top end of the results.
Tomlinson's proposals to change all this have certainly caused a stir. Within a day of the report's publication education secretary Charles Clarke and even Blair were defending the existing testing regime, declaring that the 'gold standard' of A-levels would be maintained. The words 'teacher assessment' did not cross the lips of any education minister, though this is a central thread running through the report. It is highly unlikely that when a government Green Paper is issued in January this theme of the report will feature highly. In the leaks from the report over the last few months it is clear that the needs of business are a key factor in shaping its recommendations.
A worrying aspect of the report is the way that vocational education is seen as the panacea for disaffection. The report divides disaffected youngsters into three groups - the 1 to 2 percent of non-attendees totally disengaged with the school process, the 20 percent who are 'disaffected but in touch' with education through a mixture of school and the current vocational provision, and the 20 percent who are engaged with school but who fail to achieve five A to C passes. Added together this group makes up at least 41 percent of the school age population - a significant chunk who could be identified to be more 'suited' to vocational rather than academic education. In practice, the vast majority of this group - mainly white and black working class boys - will have a diet of literacy, maths, ICT and then work, with little or no history, geography, science or arts from the age of 14. The divide between academic and vocational education could be formalised in a way not seen in Britain since the grammar school and secondary modern divide.
It would have been a braver move to scrap the straitjacket of the National Curriculum and endless tests in favour of learning about the civil rights movement, Picasso or Copernicus for their own sake. It is not the academic demands of history itself that lead to the disaffection of our students, but the unrelenting reinforcement of failure that constant testing brings. The radical changes that Tomlinson proposes are in danger of becoming a way of limiting educational opportunities rather than extending them. Parents, teachers, the unions and students themselves need to use the coming months to ensure that the government hears their voices as loudly as it seems to hear those of the CBI.