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The Tomlinson report is a distraction

David Green, 19 October 2004

The Tomlinson report into the education of 14-19 year-olds is a missed opportunity. By common consent our system, supposedly designed to ensure that rich and poor alike receive a good education, fails many of our children.
About 5% reach the end of compulsory schooling with no formal qualifications. Only 42% of 16 year-olds achieve a grade C or higher in both English and Maths GCSE. Many employers find young recruits lacking in basic skills. And worse still, even among those taking A-levels, a significant number of universities find that they have to provide catch-up courses for first-year students.
We should be having an entirely different debate. The introduction of a diploma with entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced stages will, of itself, be irrelevant. Reducing the number of external examinations, as the report proposes, will lower standards. Teacher assessment is notoriously unreliable because it expects each teacher to be a judge in his or her own cause. If a large number of their pupils do badly, perhaps it is because of bad teaching, a conclusion no teacher is likely to encourage. And the attempt to equalise status – parity of esteem – is a naïve absurdity. The status of occupations cannot be dictated by law or determined by a government policy. Such attempts are simply futile.
Instead of restructuring the qualifications framework, we should be focusing on the underlying causes of education failure. Above all, it is because the public sector is a monopoly. The small private sector allows an escape for some, but the real challenge is to create opportunities for the vast majority of the population by allowing new schools committed to high standards in learning to be established. Monopoly tends to diminish the discovery of better ways of meeting human needs and competition increases the chances that better solutions will be found.

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