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Published in Print: May 5, 2004, as England Sets Sights On Secondary Schools

England Sets Sights On Secondary Schools

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England, like the United States, is wrestling with how to improve education for secondary students.

To that end, the Working Group on 14-19 Reform released its interim report in February. Known informally as the Tomlinson report—after its chairman, Mike Tomlinson, a former chief inspector of schools—its recommendations are meant to tackle England’s high dropout rate and burdensome testing regime for teenagers.

England has the fourth-highest dropout rate for students by age 17 of any country in the industrialized world. Nearly half of 16-year-olds leave school without having earned the exam grades required to prepare for college. Vocational courses and qualifications typically are viewed as poor relations.

"There is still an academic and vocational divide," said Bob Jenkins, a deputy head teacher at the 1,700-student Castle School in Thornbury, a comprehensive secondary school.

Four years ago, the government introduced Curriculum 2000 to encourage teenagers to study more subjects in the first year of post-16 education, before specializing in an academic or vocational field. The changes split the A-level syllabuses required for entry into a university into multiple exam modules.

Many now view that strategy as a flop. Although it encouraged students to take more subjects in the first year of postcompulsory schooling, a majority opted for courses in related fields rather than branching out. Teachers also complained that the new curriculum put too great a testing burden on students.

Testing is "crucifying the enjoyment of education," said Adrian Verwoert, the head teacher at the Castle School.

Confidence in the testing system eroded further in 2002—the first year of implementation of Curriculum 2000—when a grading fiasco led the final scores for almost 2,000 students to be revised upward.

The Tomlinson report proposes a more balanced curriculum for 14- to 19-year-olds that would ensure all young people have a strong foundation in mathematics, communications, and computer technology. Students also would have to complete an extended project that encouraged them to pursue an area of interest in depth.

‘Get On With It’

Beyond those main areas of study, the working group proposes a series of interlocking diplomas that would permit students to pursue their individual interests, by combining more general learning with increased academic or vocational specialization. Members of the Tomlinson group hope the new structure would be better at stretching and motivating young people.

Tony Neal, the head teacher of the 1,260- student De Aston School in Lincolnshire, said that, in principle, the notion of trying to find a more equitable line between academic and vocational coursework, and encouraging students to mix the two, is positive.

"The devil is in the details," he added, "and it’s too early yet to know both what the implications for schools will be or how those changes will be perceived externally. Because whether it works will depend on its credibility."

Others caution that, however good the ideas, teachers are tired of the almost constant turbulence.

"I don’t think we can cope with too much more big change again in the near future," mused Denise Davies, a deputy head teacher at the 700-student St. Martin-in-the-Fields High School in London. "We actually need to be able to just settle down and get on with it."

Vol. 23, Issue 34, Page 21

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