Kelly gives Labour its best day this term

27 February 2005
The Daily Telegraph
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Far from being the worst day in Labour’s second term – the New Statesman’s Richard Reeves described it as "the biggest domestic policy failure" of this parliament – the Education Secretary’s rejection of the Tomlinson Report makes it their best. The educational establishment’s howl of fury at Ruth Kelly’s education White Paper, published on Thursday, has been loud and wide-ranging.

Everyone from the unions and headteachers to such august bodies as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and Ofsted, the school inspectorate, appeared to deplore the way she rejected the main thrust of the Tomlinson proposals.

Sir Mike Tomlinson recommended last year that A-levels and GCSEs should be replaced with an over-arching diploma (with all the specious foreign appeal of the baccalauréat) that all school leavers would work towards throughout their secondary school career: the diploma would make sure that vocational subjects had the same importance as academic subjects. He promised that the brightest would be stretched, but those wanting to go down the vocational route could do so without being labelled failures.

Given this information, those not in the know might want to condemn Miss Kelly for simply "cherry-picking" from Tomlinson, something that the mild-mannered former chief inspector warned her against. He wanted wholesale change to correct a system that is, according to his own report and many other studies, in crisis.

Miss Kelly has ignored Tomlinson’s warning and has "cherry-picked" in a fashion that is admirable and dexterous, given that all her advisers have been advocating implementing the report in full. Perhaps most admirably, she has not been distracted by all the personal attacks she has endured for being part of the obscure Catholic sect, Opus Dei, and has knuckled down and got on with the job. Anyone who knows the report well can only respect the way she has made her selection.

As disclosed in last week’s Sunday Telegraph, her simple but effective response to the claim that it is impossible for universities to distinguish the really able students by their performance at A-level – since, thanks to grade inflation, the top grades have become all but meaningless – has been to introduce merits and distinctions for A-grade candidates. She has wisely decided to keep GCSEs but improve the existing exams, while boosting vocational training with 14 diplomas covering such subjects as healthcare, engineering and hairdressing. There will be a new diploma for those getting 5 A-C grades, including English and maths – a very practical way of getting students to concentrate upon the basics of numeracy and literacy.

Unlike most of the education secretaries of the past 20 years – both Tory and Labour – she has not been hoodwinked by the self-serving bureaucrats who clog up far too many offices at the education department, QCA, Ofsted, and all the other quangoes. Tomlinson was the result of much consultation with these people. Like numerous other initiatives produced over the past 20 years, it would have meant an endless stream of work for civil servants as they re-designed the 14-to-18-year-old curriculum.

Meanwhile, away from last week’s outraged bluster, what would the teachers be feeling? Pretty relieved, I suspect. During the 14 years I have been teaching, there has hardly been a month in which a new initiative hasn’t been presented to me: a glossy brochure, a new report, a government propaganda magazine, a grid to fill in, a target to meet, a syllabus to change, a learning objective to establish, – there’s even a television channel now, called Teachers’ TV, funded by the taxpayer. While many teachers keep their target-bedazzled management happy by tolerating this tripe, most of us privately loathe it. We just want to get on and teach.

Tomlinson’s central idea was in reality an attack upon academic subject knowledge. He feels that academic and vocational qualifications should have "parity of esteem": in other words a pupil who studied maths, physics and science could, in theory, attain the same level of diploma as one studying bricklaying and hairdressing. This is patently ridiculous. Why slog away at physics when you can get the same mark putting bricks on a wall? Miss Kelly recognised all these problems, and provided the best response she can. She has boosted vocational qualifications, but has also seen that having separate qualifications has a real value: giving vital information about a pupil’s attainment.

This is brave of her. She would have had a much easier time if she had accepted Tomlinson because it would have meant yet again that results would have risen year on year. It would have given the educational bureaucracy a ruthless power over schools to demand good results. And politicians would have benefited because it would have looked as though things were improving. But they wouldn’t have been. Pupils would have remained unchallenged because the chances to live an easy life would have been even more numerous than they are now.

The GCSE results in English and maths and other subjects provide us with valuable information. We are not educating many of our children properly. A key factor is that the bureaucrats’ attempts at setting a relevant, engaging curriculum have been atrocious. For example, the English GCSE, which I have taught for years, is a miserable syllabus that does not really test a pupil’s ability at all, except their facility for parroting what the teacher has told them. It would be quite easy to improve it: many English teachers could do it in a day. Miss Kelly has recognised this and has demanded that the course requirements are re-written – let’s hope not by the QCA.

By not lazily signing on the dotted line like so many education secretaries before her, I hope that Miss Kelly has sent this moribund bunch an important warning signal. I am beginning to think that she is, perhaps, the first education secretary in years that is actually cleverer than the Sir Humphreys advising her. Perhaps she knows just how much damage these smooth-talkers have wrought upon our schools. Her next step should be to sack the bureaucrats, cut the national curriculum to its bare minimum, and allow schools the freedom to innovate, set their own curricula, and to teach.

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