National Grammar Schools Association
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NGSA Response to the Tomlinson Report
(Interim Report of the Working Group on 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform, DfES, 2004)

1st June 2004

There is much to commend in the Tomlinson Report. There is a clear recognition that the unacademic should be distinguished at an early age, and allowed to follow a vocational route. Likewise the most able need to be stretched more. On the face of it this seems to be a solid disapproval of the comprehensive movement.

The Report’s criticism of the increasingly mechanistic methods of examining – multiple choice, short-answer questions and an excess of course work is welcome. It also strongly suggests that grade inflation is operative. This is endorsed by the criticism of the AS fiasco in 2002, but by perceiving it as a ‘blip’ there is a failure to recognise the long term process of grade inflation that has been operative at A-level.

One of the most interesting reviews of the Tomlinson Report is that to be found in Prof. Adrian Smith’s Inquiry into Post-14 Mathematics Education (February 2004). It declared that “the overwhelming majority of respondents to the Inquiry no longer regard current mathematics curricula, assessment and qualifications as fit for purpose.” This, no doubt, was what led Smith to endorse the Tomlinson proposal that both GCSE and A-level should be replaced by a Diploma. The present sad state of mathematics described by Smith is paralleled in physics, chemistry and academic subjects generally. Our present educational system, including the examination system, is in a sorry state.

One of the most interesting specific comments in the Smith Inquiry was that the distribution of A-level grades achieved in mathematics does not follow the typical bell-shaped curve. The facts are that in 2003 39% of candidates achieved Grade A compared with 21% (Grade B), 16% (Grade C), 12% (Grade D) and 8% (Grade E). The difference between the figures for the A and E grades in 2003 was 31%, compared with 21% in the year 2000. This is a clear sign of grade adjustment for ideological reasons. This phenomenon is not confined to mathematics. The Independent Schools Inspectorate recently reported that A-levels are too easy for Eton. Last year three-quarters of the 882 A-levels taken by 259 Etonians were awarded a grade A. Eton was not alone in this respect. It is a very clear sign of massive grade inflation, which is leading to lack of differentiation of A-level performances and preventing universities from using A-level results in the selection of candidates for entry.

Another very interesting view of the Smith Inquiry was its praise of the Tomlinson wish to “ move away from rigid, age-related one-size-fits-all arrangements”. At first sight this might be taken as backing for the attempt by Tony Blair to get rid of comprehensive schools, but further study shows the confusion surrounding the Tomlinson wish. In his OCR/KPMG Lecture: Learning for all: can it be made a reality? – delivered at the RSA on 26 March 2003 – Mike Tomlinson expressed some really odd views on equality. He claimed that, because only ca.50% of 15 year-old pupils gained 5+ GCSE grades A*-C, then ca. 50% were failing to benefit from the education provided, and worse still that the education system was failing![1] It is not clear whether Tomlinson really believed that all the pupils should emerge from the examination with 5+ GCSE grades A*-C or whether he was simply following the line laid down by Estelle Morris, who – on her resignation – accepted blame for the fact that only 50% of the age cohort was successful in what, incidentally, had never been a pass/fail examination. Another view he expressed in his RSA lecture, viz. that pupils who do not reach the ‘expected level’[2] at each of KS1, KS2 and KS3 were failing, suggested that he might be moving to the general position of regarding all those below average as failures.

The change from the promotion of ‘equality of opportunity’ to that of ‘equality results’ was formally adopted by the OECD and the Labour Minister, Ted Short, in 1970. The Swedish Education Professor, Torsten Husen, who was Consultant to the OECD, described ‘equality of opportunity’ as a liberal concept, and ‘equality of results’ as “ more radical or sociological ...[and sometimes Marxist]”. (Social Influences on Educational Attainment, OECD, Paris, 1975).

The present attractiveness of the ‘equality of results’ concept, applied to education, was fully demonstrated by Dr Ken Boston, Chief Executive of QCA, at the meeting of the House of Commons Select Committee on Education on 19 April 2004. Defending his support of “full cohort testing for 7, 11 and 14 year-old children” he stated: “I believe fundamentally that it is important from the point of view of equity in that it allows you to identify the performance of some groups within the community and gives you the potential to target those groups and achieve genuine equality of outcomes in education, by which I mean the range and mean of performance of sub groups will equate with the range and mean of performance as a whole. That is what equity in education is about.”

This suggests that, contrary to what was previously said about the unacademic being recognised earlier in order to follow a vocational route, and the most able being stretched more, by the time they complete their parallel courses they will achieve genuine equality of outcome. This would only be possible by the abandonment of all attempts at criterion referencing in public examinations.

Both the Tomlinson Report and the Smith Inquiry recommended a number of different curriculum and examination pathways post-14. It is possible that Tomlinson adopted this simply in order to avoid the whole age group being examined simultaneously and the public being provided with evidence showing a wide range of performances. Whether it was intended to disguise the differences from the public or to move towards a genuine equality of outcome is open to question. The comments of Dr Boston strongly suggest the latter. The QCA and Government-appointed groups tend to work towards the same goal.

The National Qualifications Framework, as defined in Appendix 4 of the Smith Inquiry, shows a confusion between the use of length of time devoted to a course and the standards achieved at the end as valid criteria Thus ‘level 3 advanced level’ exists in 3 forms viz. (i) General A level - free-standing mathematics units level 3 (ii) Vocational A level (Advanced GNVQ) and (iii) Occupational Level 3 NVQ. There is no mention of including the number of passes achieved in the level reached. Level 2 (intermediate level) is defined as GCSE grade A*-C (again with no reference to the number of such grades achieved). A similar technique is used in OECD PISA studies. The students who take their first main exams in Germany, for example, at 16 are assigned to Level 2. Although there is absolutely no way of comparing the standards at GCSE with the standards of the German equivalent examinations, the use of the common term Level 2 gives the wrong impression that a direct comparison of standards is possible.

The main issue in a study of the 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform is whether the educational aim is to provide equal opportunities or to produce equality of outcome. The conclusion reached by Torsten Husen in his chapter on IQ, School Attainment and Occupational Career was highly revealing. It was:

"That there should be such highly divergent interpretations of the existing evidence – from adherents of a more meritocratic view, on the one side, and the critics of the school as an instrument of hierarchization and credentialism on the other, is striking indeed. Even researchers analysing the same set of data have arrived at opposing conclusions.”

The conflict between equality of opportunity and equality of results is at the heart of the present debate, but fails to get a mention in the Tomlinson report. Equality of results has a pleasant ring to it, but what is at stake is whether the equality ought to be achieved by lifting everybody up to the standard of the highest or holding everybody down to the level of the lowest. The answer to this question is obvious, but the real issue is whether it can be achieved. The current prevalence of the radical/sociological/Marxist concept of equality of results is alarming. The European Commission’s Teaching and Learning. Towards the Learning Society, 1996, strongly recommended schools that were “based on the conviction that all pupils in the same age group are capable of reaching the same level of academic achievement by the time they are of school-leaving age.” They had in mind the so-called “accelerated schools”, which they claimed existed in the USA. Under-achievers had to be provided with schools of excellence in which they were to be made to work harder!

There is a grave danger that the Tomlinson proposals will further the egalitarian cause at the expense of academic standards. The most important thing to recognize in considering the Tomlinson report is the existence of two opposing educational philosophies. The only solution lies in respecting the legal rights of parents to have education for their children “in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions”, now consolidated in the Human Rights Act 1998. All our main political parties should recognize the importance of consulting parents on these issues.


[1] The corresponding figure in what was supposed to be an equivalent exam in 1967 (O-level/CSE) was 18%! It should be emphasised in passing that the 5+ GCSE grades A*-C is inadequate for comparing the performances of grammar-type pupils. The more suitable 5+ GCSE grades A*-A criterion shows that wholly selective LEAs do nearly twice as well as wholly comprehensive LEAs.

[2] When the TGAT 10 point scale was introduced it was expected that there would be a normal distribution of performances at each of the key stages and the mean grades were identified as Grade 2 (KS1), Grade 4 (KS2) and Grade 5-6 (KS3). In the course of time the mean grade was referred to first as the “expected grade” and later as the “required grade”. The effect of this was to regard below average performances as failures – a necessary consequence of replacing equality of opportunity by equality of results.