Saturday, October 23, 2004

Once again, Tomlinson misses the point

What is it about education and the teaching profession that gives morons a long career path? Mike Tomlinson has always seemed to me to have the intelligence of a small gnat - I saw him absolutely taken apart by the Education Select Committee, and yet no-one picks up the fact that this may make him somewhat unsuitable for the commissioning of a report looking for the complete overhaul of secondary education as we know it. I admit, I have an in-built hatred of the man following the abysmal and utterly outrageous whitewash of the inquiry into A-Level marking in 2002. But for him to have become the head of Ofsted to me beggars belief - going far, far beyond the Peter principle. He must surely have been promoted three or four levels (at least!) above his level of competence.

His report into the overhaul of secondary education merely confirms this to me. Admittedly, there are some good ideas hidden within it - most notably, the realisation that good students can be fast-streamed and reach their potential more quickly than others can - but this is lost in a stream of egalitarian rhetoric of the worst kind. Unfortunately, none of the alternatives hit the point any more, despite the fact there is so much consensus regarding the problems facing our education system. Worse still, there is no constructive political opposition to prevent the adoption in some form of the recommendations of the report.

The idea of an overarching "diploma", which will cover all kinds of skills and education taught at school, is typical of the notion that all schoolchildren can have prizes. What it fails to address is the real reason why students remain uninterested in classroom teaching. For, from what I understand of the report, the recommendations don't change a huge deal. They may cut back on the amount of examinations; they may rename assessments, and at the top level, it will institute differentiating grades. But in general, the system will remain largely the same. Curricula may be changed to have a more direct impact on literacy and numeracy but, again, the framework is no different to that which has gone before it. Indeed, this is typical of the Labour government in many areas, and most especially in education - it tinkers with systems to make it look as if it is doing something good. These changes are almost invariably for the worse, and heap additional responsibilities where none are necessary.

What causes most of the problems in the educational system is that we continue to pretend that academic and vocational education can be treated as intrinsically equal. Therefore examining them through the same system and giving them supposed equal weight and merit in all areas can be portrayed as a logical and sensible thing. Of course, lumping them together in this way cheapens both. We see the vocational as nowhere near the academic rigour of the traditional exams they are supposed to be equal too; at the same time, there is a reweighting of the skills required in traditional exams which leads to perceptions of dumbing down.

I am not saying vocational qualifications are not worth as much as academic qualifications. What they are is a reflection of how good someone is at different skills. Therefore they should be tested differently. If anyone wanted to make a genuine contribution to educational excellence in this country, then they would separate the two systems as much as is practical. That way, we would be able to keep people more interested. Rather than having "A-Level lite" qualifications still largely taught in a traditional manner in schools, we could move towards a much more practical-based qualification. I don't hold out much hope in this regard. Educated opinion in this country has been arguing for better provisions of technical education since before the turn of the last century. Yet it is the only way to restore confidence in what are widely perceived to be failing standards. Paradigm breaking, outside-the-box thinking can bring about the best results for education. Lose the comprehensive, "traditional" mindset (comment if you want a further explanation of what I mean here), and actually rethink whole swathes of the system. I'll elaborate further in due course, no doubt, but only if we separate academic and vocational education, and are thus able to hold them to greater respective rigour, can we effect genuine improvements.