Tomlinson Report Feedback

At last, I’ve had time to actually read the Tomlinson Report. This is my feedback to the Working Group. I’ve organised it under 5 headings of particular interest to me. Numbers in [ ] are paragraph numbers from the report.

The unified vision

Tomlinson proposes four-level diploma. It has a common core of key skills with modular content organised around it. Modularisation and key skills are popular trend at the moment, so this is unsurprising. Here’s the big benefit; you can re-label and recycle existing courses.

Diploma components may in some cases grow out of existing GCSE, A level and vocational programmes such as BTECs. Some existing qualifications will need to be re-engineered to fit the framework, and new components will be developed where necessary.

[Summary p5]

What’s more surprising is to find, all of a sudden, the English system embracing Mastery Learning.

Programmes and diplomas will not in general be linked to specific age ranges within the 14-19 phase. Young people should be able to progress through the system as far and as fast they are able. And, if they leave education and training, they should be able to re-enter later with credit for their previous achievement.

[Summary p3]

But…they then falter, reintroducing an age related distinction by keeping Key Stage 4 as a distinct entity.

During Key Stage 4 learners will follow open programmes incorporating the statutory Key Stage 4 requirements,

[Summary p5]

This pretty much forces the continued separation of 14-16 and 16-18 that we have now. What’s more, Diagram 5.1 [para 110] lays out a clear equivalence with the existing system. In fact to those of us who left school in the ’70s it’s even more familiar. Advanced Diploma = A-level, Intermediate Diploma = GCE; Foundation Diploma = CSE. Tomlinson thinks he’s being radical:

Since the 1970s there have been numerous initiatives aimed at reforming 14-19, but most have resulted in piecemeal change. The time has come to stop this tinkering and to develop a coherent approach to the curriculum and qualifications available to 14-19 year olds.


If he’d really embraced Mastery Learning I really would be cheering at this point. As it is, what we see so far is a competent but unexciting administrative reorganisation.

The extended project

The most reported aspect of the report is that students will:

undertake an extended project or personal challenge, reflecting the nature and level of their programme, and enriching their learning by encouraging them to pursue in depth an area of study which interests and motivates them. In doing so they will acquire and demonstrate a range of research, planning, analytical, critical and presentational skills required in employment and higher education;

[Summary p4]


The end product might, for instance, be a written report, a piece of experimental science, an artefact, a personal performance or a video, through which the learner is able to demonstrate a range of skills, knowledge and understanding. It would be both internally and externally assessed and credit would be given for the final piece of work and for the quality of the research, problem solving and communication skills which had contributed to it.


I’ve come round to being quite excited by this, at least for more able students. I certainly would have loved to do something like this when I was at school. For the less able, a timeframe of two years is far too long for a single project. It will have to be broken down into a set of discrete, preset, tasks that can be completed over a period of up to two weeks. Coursework, basically.


Particular attention is needed to tackle two key weaknesses in our existing system. Firstly, more effective programmes and progression routes are needed for those young people who fail to achieve the equivalent of 5 A* to C GCSEs grades by the end of compulsory schooling. Secondly, all young people should be stretched to their full capacity and the qualifications framework should allow those who can to progress further than the current upper limit of the main Advanced level qualifications.

[Chapter 2 summary]

By moving to the open-ended Extended Project, Tomlinson has significantly improved provision for the more able. I’m less convinced at the other end of the ability spectrum. Simply inventing ‘Entry’ and ‘Foundation’ diplomas doesn’t address the key problem. Less able kids generally do better if they are drilled with clear procedures to help them operate in the world, but that really cuts across the liberal philosophy that guides our education system. Until this is tackled head-on, we will continue to fail the less-able.

Tackling the vocational/academic divide (but only at 16+)

Specialised diplomas: finally, here’s the vocational education. p26 s67-71. I could easily quote the whole section. Basically, start from the job and work backwards. This actually does give me hope. One would hope that they’d lead off with Law and Medicine specialisations as these are the highest-status vocational degrees.

First, the good news; a sensible and positive approach to the nation’s requirement for skilled people:

a diploma will be relevant and useful only if it ensures that young people acquire a specific range of knowledge and skills needed for participation and progress in specialist areas or disciplines. For example, successful participation in a physics degree requires a range of previous scientific and mathematical achievement, whilst employment in the construction industry needs to be underpinned by specific craft skills and knowledge of the properties of materials.


But he also acknowledges that we’re different from, say, Germany or Denmark p29 s73. This is new to me and merits further investigation.

This would accord with positive experience both here and in those other European countries which – like the UK – do not have a labour market organised in tight occupational groups.


Now the bad news:

Although we are not proposing specialised diplomas at KS4,


Why ever not at KS4? I just don’t buy this argument that it’s “too soon”. A student who takes a GCSE isn’t locked forever into becoming a geographer.

And there’s more bad news. By drawing a distinction between “Open” and “Specialised” diplomas, Tomlinson is simply providing a new euphemism for bricklaying in many peoples’ minds. And it adds nothing. Given that for years the highest-status degree courses (Law and Medicine) have been vocational, surely it’s time to accept that there is no shame in preparing for employment.


I was very pleased to see that deliverability has been taken into account right from the start. In an educational system traditionally overstuffed with facts, less will undoubtedly mean more.

In developing our proposals our working assumption is that a full-time programme leading to a diploma should typically involve 1200 hours guided learning time, or approximately 20 hours per week over a two year programme.

This has implications for publishers in that most existing courses will need at least careful trimming to fit.

Better yet, I thought, a modular course structure will lead to school timetables that don’t give their creators nervous breakdowns. Until I read…

Portability and the opportunity to transfer credit would be most easily achieved in a system where all components were of a standard size. Such standardisation should be encouraged where appropriate, especially for components most likely to be used in open diplomas. However, some components of specialised diplomas will need to vary in size to reflect different kinds of programme and subject matter.matter. A strong common structure and volume should not be imposed upon all diploma components simply for the sake of neatness and commonality.


This smacks of committee kludge to me. I really wish they’d held the line on the simple principle of modularity that modules must be logistically interchangeable.


Three very interesting points to note about assessment.

including external examinations and tests, portfolio/project assignments, ‘viva’ type presentations of their work; and teacher-led assessment of work done as part of the teaching and learning of their programme.

[summary, chapter 8]

The idea of including a viva is exciting, because it will really test the ability to communicate verbally. The Italian education system puts great stress on viva assessments; Italians’ famously good interpersonal skills are often cited as related to this.

Reduction in burden may also be achieved through the further development of e-assessment, which has the potential to change the nature of external assessment. We believe this offers a real opportunity for future improvement in assessment processes (see paragraphs 191-194.)


It’s rare for a government report to seek to both address old problems and embrace new opportunities. It’s of major credit to Tomlinson and his team that they’ve achieved that here. They’ve not said so explicitly, but I think some of what they propose simply cannot be achieved without invoking new technology. The Extended Project, for example, probably could not be moderated within existing resources unless an e-portfolio system was used.

There area number of ways in which the awarding infrastructure could be configured, [snip]

  • A market in which awarding bodies provide individual components,
  • Franchising of individual diploma titles to awarding bodies;
  • A limited number of awarding bodies able to offer any or each diploma
  • A single awarding body responsible for the whole range of diplomas.


The implication for exam boards (and by extension for publishers, who depend to varying degrees on exam board endorsment) is that their positions are not safe. I hope they will keep the existing system of three competing boards. From what I’ve seen of the inner workings of the boards, the competition really does drive each to improve the service it offers the nation. At the same time, each is large enough to fund good, high level research and development.


tI’ve picked out poins of personal interest to me. The whole report is remarkably readable, here it is in pdf or word format. Feedback to:


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