'Alison Wolf'

March 18, 2005

...The whole affair had passed them by'

It is more important to tackle the lack of students in core subjects than to create an over-arching school diploma

Last October, the government-appointed working group on 14-19 reform delivered the Tomlinson report. And last month came the Government's response in a White Paper that adopted some, but not most, of the Tomlinson recommendations.

The newspapers were full of stories about how universities, never mind the schools, were lining up to criticise this decision. I thought this was puzzling. I hadn't picked up any fury over the White Paper (or indeed any mention of it) along our corridors. But I might be wrong. I decided to sound out everyone I know who is directly involved in undergraduate teaching and admissions, excluding those in education departments. Having a view on Tomlinson is, after all, the day job for education faculties.

I emailed about 100 people and got a typical 25 per cent response rate.

Almost half had no idea what Tomlinson was about: the whole affair had passed them by. Just one person had read the report. The others had read press reports and picked up various themes - of which the most cited was that it was something to do with vocational education, or with merging academic and vocational. I didn't ask for a thumbs-up or down, though I got two (one each way). And no one mentioned any major consequences for our own affairs.

Obviously, universities are interested in English secondary education, since the bulk of our first-year students come through it. But the education issue that most occupies the institutions I know is the lack of applicants in core subjects, notably languages and science. Tomlinson offered nothing on this that I could find.

The most selective universities gripe that A levels no longer discriminate.

Tomlinson recommended an eight-point scale for A levels instead of the five-point one. The White Paper equally offers more information, through release of students' individual unit grades. So that can't be why the universities are mad about the Government's response.

Short term, as one cynical friend of mine observed, Tomlinson offered a move from "applicants with three A levels and an AS to applicants with a diploma telling us that they got three A levels and an AS". However, the report did see this as short term: Tomlinson wanted to phase separate A levels out altogether in favour of diplomas that added everything together.

The support voiced by one senior Cambridge University admissions administrator got us a Times headline of "Scrap A levels, Cambridge says".

Were Cambridge administrators mourning a lost future in which candidates presented themselves with nothing but a single mark - 1,021 versus 1,118 versus 1,117 (and a half)? I hope not, because that would display a worrying lack of assessment expertise. If you are selecting a few people from a large group, it is very useful if they have at least one exam or test in common. But ranking everyone on the same exam is a completely different exercise from taking all the separate things different people do, giving each a number and adding them up.

There are no technical tricks that tell you objectively whether this person's performance in leisure and tourism is "worth" the same as, or more than, this person's in drama or that person's in chemistry. On the contrary: the decision on what "equates" with what is deeply political. If anyone in Cambridge thought they were being offered a safe way of ranking students that would take Oxbridge selection decisions out of the headlines, they were much mistaken.

There was a furore earlier this year when new ways of calculating school league tables were announced. These made a good result in cake decorating as valuable, for ranking purposes, as one in physics. Fine cake decoration and pastry-making are very difficult (and well rewarded) but also totally different from academic school subjects. If I were running a top-rank patisserie course, I would want to know about young applicants' catering skills, not just some overall diploma score. The same logic applies to selection for a science degree. I certainly would not want to be forced to take the people with the most points, or defend myself to a government agency if I didn't.

English governments have been engaged in hyperactive reform of vocational education for 20 years, and it is still a mess. However, I cannot see why putting everything in the same diploma will give everything the same status. UK degrees are all meant to have the "same" worth: but that is not how people treat them. Tomlinson's fate, I suspect, is to become a Bonnie Prince Charlie of school reform, bathed in a romantic glow of what people hoped could be. Now, could someone address the shortage of science and modern language students?

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management, King's College London.

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