Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for bringing forward this debate on a subject that is of major significance to the future of our country. I particularly congratulate the noble Baroness on her exquisite timing
 
16 Mar 2005 : Column 1340
 
in having this debate follow today's magnificent Budget announcements, with extra funding for education that impacts directly on the subject matter we are discussing.

The analysis of the Tomlinson report is compelling, and its essence is encapsulated in one of its earlier paragraphs:

I place particular emphasis on the word "all", and illustrate with a couple of local experiences why I believe this must be so.

About four years ago, we launched an event in Luton called "Celebrating Education". It was a public recognition across the town for young people who had achieved. Schools had their own awards day, and nominated a particular pupil for the town-wide event. This not only focused on those with the highest academic attainment, but included those, some with special educational needs, who, in their terms, had made real progress. The joy of their having succeeded, and the support and engagement of parents, were of special significance to me. "Celebrating Education" was part of the process of value in education, and I am pleased to say it is now an annual event.

Although at the other end of the spectrum from the 14 to 19 age group, I would also cite an event at a local nursery school where I had the privilege of presenting some certificates. In one case, I am not sure who was most excited and proud, the little girl or her mother. I heard the latter remark that it was the first time anyone in the family had received any award like this. It was as though she considered that it was not supposed to happen to families like theirs. We have to ensure that no individual or family feels excluded from the education system, and that every individual has the opportunity to reach their potential.

We have made huge progress in this country since the imperative of "Education, education, education" was first espoused by the Prime Minister. As acknowledged by the noble Baroness, primary results are at their highest ever level, and compare favourably internationally. Key stage 3, GCSE and A-level results are at their best-ever level. Record levels of investment have flowed into our schools, with more to come for building schools for the future, and yet more following today's announcement in that splendid Budget. Post-16 participation rates have increased, but we know that these do not compare well internationally, and that too many youngsters leave school without a basic grounding in English and maths.

If we changed nothing from the investment and strategies already in place, I have no doubt that most young people in our schools would continue to make further progress. But it is not good enough that only most young people make the best of their education. We want all young people to do so. We know that the current education offer to students means that some are precluded from succeeding, because the type of curriculum that would engage and excite them is absent. Switching off from education not only diminishes the life chances of the individual, but can percolate through the
 
16 Mar 2005 : Column 1341
 
generations. Too often we see the malignant cycle of disaffection with the curriculum, bad behaviour, low attainment, lack of parental engagement with the school, and a rush from education at the earliest opportunity. We are already having to deal with the consequences of parents whom the system has failed in the past.

The Tomlinson report and the Government's response give us a genuine opportunity to change this. Neither should we accept that there is an inevitability about differential educational outcomes for students from different ethnic backgrounds. The situation we have locally mirrors the national position, with the relative position of some ethnic groups improving through the key stages, while for others it declines. The proposals in the White Paper will help because they focus more on the individual needs of the student and they build in flexibility on the timing of progression.

As the White Paper asserts, tackling these matters is both a moral and an economic issue. It is a moral issue because we have a duty to ensure that every individual is equipped to enjoy a full life, including access to higher education and employment. It is an economic issue because if we are to compete successfully in the global economy, we need to improve skills and to encourage the capacity and enthusiasm to learn throughout life. We should also recognise that we need to seek an enduring consensus on these matters if we are to deliver the change required for our young people. The Government's White Paper recognises that in building on the changes already taking place, it would still be 2015 before all the diplomas became a nationwide entitlement.

It has been said again today that the Government's response to the Tomlinson report was a missed opportunity, but I reject that assertion. Even though they have not adopted all the recommendations made, they have adopted its fundamental analysis of the issues that need to be tackled: getting the basics right, strengthening vocational routes, focusing on the needs of individual pupils, seeking ways to stretch and challenge, engaging employers in the design of diplomas and widening routes to higher education. They have also gone some way to responding to recommendations made about the burden of assessment.

However, there is divergence on the matter of the continuing role of GCSEs and A-levels. Tomlinson envisages these as ceasing to be freestanding qualifications and evolving to become components of the new diplomas. The Government's White Paper puts GCSEs and A-levels at the heart of the 14-to-19 agenda, but with some key changes. I wonder whether in practice and over time the difference in these two approaches is as wide as has been suggested. Tomlinson's diplomas include "open" lines of learning and retained opportunities for a combination of academic subjects similar to existing GCSEs and A-levels. What these are called is less important than ensuring that the programme can meet the needs of the individual student, encouraging progression and facilitating movement across the offering so that young people do not unduly narrow their options.
 
16 Mar 2005 : Column 1342
 

It is hugely important to ensure that the diplomas enjoy the same value and recognition as GCSEs and A-levels and that they offer the same opportunities to access higher education and employment. There is no inherent reason why they should not do so if the components of the diplomas are of high quality and relevance. In any case, an interesting debate for another day is to ask what in the modern world is vocational and what is academic.

I should like to make two further brief points. I note that the White Paper recognises the need for further work on how best to stretch the most able students. There is a hint that the international baccalaureate might offer one way of doing this. Noble Lords will be aware that the IB aims for breadth, depth and stretch, and there is a particular and welcome emphasis on international awareness, cross-cultural perspectives and caring about the world. I would be interested to learn where this approach sits in the current vision of the 14-to-19 agenda.

Secondly, we know that the prospects presented in the White Paper mean that not all schools and institutions will be able to offer the full entitlement to diplomas, GCSEs and A-levels and that the agenda will require increased co-operation and partnership arrangements between schools, colleges, universities and employers.

But these are genuinely exciting times for education, with a chance to build on the progress made to date and to tackle further the fundamental issues which have daunted us for too long.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has given us an opportunity to discuss Tomlinson. The same delight does not seem to have been experienced by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills when she addressed the conference of the Secondary Heads Association recently. The TES noted some extremely pungent comments:

No need for the barbed wire undergarments that day. Ruth Kelly must have had a hard time. A general reading of the education press suggests that the Secretary of State could do with a few friends when it comes to her proposals, so I offer myself as one.

I share her doubts about the idea of an overarching diploma. In the days of information technology and the ease of dealing with and presenting varied information, I do not think that we should seek to reduce a pupil's educational attainments to a single figure. A diploma made up of so many different elements to reach the same answer will be something that people pay no attention to because they will not know what it means. You have to give those who are expected to place value on these qualifications enough information about what the student has actually done and actually achieved.

The international baccalaureate is a wonderful qualification. It suits a particular kind of person—the kid who has the breadth of intelligence to tackle all
 
16 Mar 2005 : Column 1343
 
that is required to do well in it. A-levels are wonderful for those who are more specialist. If you are a scientist or your joy lies in languages, or if you are maths blind but a really good historian, A-levels are absolutely for you. I share the wish of the Secretary of State to keep A-levels and, indeed, GCSEs as the foundation of our examination system. In spite of all the criticism, they are quality examinations and we should build on what we already have.

None the less, I am with Tomlinson and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, in saying that we really need to move. In taking the 20-year view—this is a long process—we must look ahead to see what can be improved in order to tackle the well known problems of the divide between vocational and academic, over-examination and so forth. Immediate wholesale reform is not required, but we need a programme of reform, one that I hope to see shared as far as possible between the parties. We should give ourselves time to talk about it, certainly in this arena, in a relatively non-partisan way. We will then have a common idea of where we are going, ensuring that every time there is a change of government—may that be soon; apart from the sadness of losing the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, it would be a pleasure from many other points of view—we do not hiccup between one vision for education and another.

Some time ago we adopted the concept of lifelong learning. We have all agreed on its importance, but we have not adapted the examination system to go with it. Exams are too big a step to make lifelong learning easy. I wholly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that one should be able to add to qualifications as you go along. It should not be a two-year stretch to pass an A-level; there ought to be steps that can be taken along the way. Those steps ought to mean something so that, while they would not be the final examination, it should be possible to clock them up over time. One should be able to say, "I am half way to an A-level and I have taken a step to sign myself off. I will now work for a couple of years and come back to the A-level after that". That system would make examinations, if not modular, more like the music examination system. Students can take steps and do not necessarily have to do everything all at once. That would be a mark of progress.

I should like to see GCSEs regarded as a final examination, signalling that it is the last examination you intend to take in a particular subject, although you may go on to do other things. The curriculum is too bound up in the obsession with the academic and thus is overly defined by academics. That makes it pretty useless to anyone not aiming to pursue the curriculum to its higher levels. I have mentioned before that when taking my son through his GCSE maths revision, even though I have spent my life working with figures, I have not used three-quarters of what he had to learn. Yet I have used a whole lot of mathematics out there in the world which are never introduced at the GCSE level, but would be very useful to people.
 
16 Mar 2005 : Column 1344
 

Making the GCSE a final examination for those who are stopping at that point would give us some constructive changes to the curriculum and would allow those who want to go further to progress straight to AS-level. They would never take a GCSE in their subject, but would carry on studying until they reach the AS stage. Perhaps, as Tomlinson says, people should be able to take these exams when they are ready, whether early or late. People could build up a portfolio of AS-levels from subjects they have chosen to take seriously. That would allow them to be much wider in their choice of GCSEs—to go off and explore a GCSE in car mechanics or construction, or whatever it might be. Rather than being hemmed in, as they are at the moment, by a rigid set of choices, it would allow people to take fewer exams when they are right and ready for them. We can move to that within the existing structure, if that is where we agree it should go.

I am comforted by some of the little changes taking place at the moment, but the key thing we have to get right is university recognition of what we are doing. What killed the concept of AS-levels was that the universities did not pay any attention to them. They just looked at the A-levels; so, kids who had spent a lot of time getting extra AS-levels received no credit for that at all, and that concept is dead. As the TES said on 11 March in its article headed "Blocked routes to higher learning", there is still that problem with universities not recognising qualifications which are out there that we have created. That pattern has continued, all the way down. If we are to move to the broadening of 14 to 19 education, we must ask at least some of the universities to move to something broader too.

I have just published a book on US universities. It is extraordinary how broad their courses are. Almost all of them offer the liberal arts degree, which means that mathematicians will be doing languages and humanities.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page