'Academic' vs 'Practical'
by Matt Grist
At Demos’ event yesterday, where Andy Burnham launched Labour’s thoughts on education policy, the shadow minister’s promise to revisit the Tomlinson Review got the biggest cheer. For the uninitiated, Tomlinson was a review of secondary education that recommended a 14-19 Diploma for all and the abolition of GCSEs and A levels. Another feature of Tomlinson was that all students would study some vocational subjects. The idea behind such a move was that ‘academic’ kids should do practical subjects just as ‘practical’ kids should do academic subjects. This way, finally, parity of esteem would be achieved between vocational and academic educational routes.
Tony Blair famously refused to implement Tomlinson. This was painted as a failure of nerve in the face of a right-wing press crying foul at the abolition of the ‘gold standard’ of A levels. Blair probably was wary about the consequences of such an outcry, but I think actually, he showed good judgement in rejecting the wholesale implementation of the Review.
Fans of Tomlinson usually have a philosophical vision of the kind of people and society education should produce. They think it is fair to force ‘academic’ kids to do practical subjects even if they don’t want to, since ‘practical’ kids are forced to do academic subjects. Such coercion is worth the candle in order to produce rounded individuals and a society where the lawyer and the bricklayer are held in the same esteem (as if education could yield such utopian dreams).
But is it really fair to say to a 14 year-old you can’t do triple science at GCSE because we don’t think that adds up to being the kind of person ‘we’ want to produce? That seems a terribly paternalistic view to take. Surely, the answer is to offer a variety of curriculum choices at 14, built around English and maths, and to offer these choices alongside good quality information and advice? That way, we let children and parents decide what kind of people they want to be.