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Blog post Part of special issue: What are we educating for?

The politics of reforming secondary education

Charles Clarke, Visiting Professor in Social and Educational Futures at Lancaster University

The biggest mistake of the 1997–2010 Labour governments was the failure in 2004/5 to implement Mike Tomlinson’s report on the future of the secondary education curriculum and assessment.

In Professor Tomlinson’s words at the time:

‘We want scholarship in subjects to be given room to flourish and we want high quality vocational provision to be available from age 14. These are different, but both, in their own terms, are vital to the future wellbeing of young people and hence our country … We must ensure rigour and that all young people are equipped with the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for HE, employment and adult life.’

He pointed out that ‘Change should be a managed evolution and not a revolution’, and he believed that ‘there exists substantial consensus about the need for reform and broad proposals set out’. He was right in all of these observations, as well as in the profound general case for reform. Tomlinson’s proposals won the support of the wide range of educational stakeholders, including employers and universities, teachers and schools, and most of government. This consensus was, and remains, essential for any successful reform.

Tomlinson’s proposals were pulled in the run up to the 2005 general election because of fear, probably unjustified, that opponents might characterise the changes as ‘abolishing A-Levels’ and launch a successful political challenge. The failure to implement Tomlinson still haunts those who believe that there is a need to look again at the secondary curriculum and assessment.

‘The failure to implement Tomlinson still haunts those who believe that there is a need to look again at the secondary curriculum and assessment.’

The long-term real-world implications of education reform mean that it best takes place at a time of relative political stability. However, since the 2015 general election there has unfortunately been no political stability. This instability was exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19 upon education, which took an extreme form in the office of Secretary of State for Education having nine incumbents since June 2016 and five since September 2021. Consistency in the office of Secretary of State is a precondition for any education reform strategy.

One result of this lengthy period of political instability is that a substantial series of reports and recommendations has been published calling for long-term changes to the education system. The most influential of these is the 2022 Times Education Commission ‘Bringing out the best: How to transform education and unleash the potential of every child’. But there are also several other proposals which reflect the same strong desire from a wide range of opinion to make significant reforms to our education system – such as, ‘The exam question’, ‘Learning and Skills for economic recovery, social cohesion and a more equal Britain’, ‘Ending the big squeeze on skills: How to futureproof education in England’, ‘Building a 14-19 education system of choice, diversity and opportunity’ and ‘School spending and costs: The coming crunch on education spending’. It is clear that outside the political world there is a strong appetite for education reform, notably focusing on skills, assessment and curriculum reform.

Whatever the outcome of the 2024 general election, it is likely that the political priorities for post-14 education over the next three or four years will be the establishment of a skills strategy for all young people and some kind of British baccalaureate at 18. Immediately after his appointment as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak briefed that he is focused upon ‘a new British baccalaureate’ and a network of ‘elite technical institutes’ to transform vocational training. Labour has a similar focus. In a recent interview Keir Starmer said he is looking at reform to skills and the curriculum and the assessment system, and is interested in the idea of a broader British baccalaureate at 18. However, there is currently no real clarity from either party about the exact content and structure of such a baccalaureate and in particular the balance within it between traditional ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ subjects.

This points to the need for a renewed version of the Tomlinson Report as a key part of secondary education policy reform in the knowledge that it will be exceptionally difficult to put into practice. ‘The exam question’ argues that only a process of incremental change over a 10-year period can succeed in making sustainable change. It is difficult to imagine maintaining political consensus over such a period of time. However, achieving such a consensus is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of creating the system of skills, curriculum and assessment which our country needs if we are successfully to meet the challenges of the future.