There’s a dangerous tendency among most of my fellow politicians to assume that what’s worked for them can work for everyone else. With hands on the ministerial levers there is a tempting opportunity to impose your life experience on the rest of society. In no area of policy is this more true than education.
Successive Education Secretaries, whether they are Conservative, Labour or now Coalition have remembered fondly their own school days and then a quarter century later lament that things aren’t what they used to be. So we get academies, not comprehensives. Free schools, not selection. Rigour, not discovery. And so on with uniforms, streaming, setting, team sports, houses and phonics.
There’s nothing wrong with politicians applying real life experiences to policy making. But the trouble is that MPs aren’t typical of the population, ministers even less so. We all went to school. But we all succeeded and have ended up in Parliament. The school system worked for us and that can give a rose tinted view of our educational past. Michael Gove and I are the same age and have an identical education time line from school through to university graduation. But the similarity ends there. I went to Mountain Ash Comprehensive, a large co-ed secondary in a south Wales mining town. Michael went to Robert Gordon’ College, a private all boys boarding school in Aberdeen. I was the only boy in the school to get a full set of O’levels at the first attempt and one of a handful to progress to university. Many of my compatriots left with a ‘school leaving certificate’ and no recognised qualifications. I don’t know enough about standards at Michael’s school but assume the expectation was that the vast majority would get good grades and go to university. The same assumption would apply to the PM, DPM and the new Schools Minister, all of whom left school in about 1985. We all sat O’levels, A’levels (and maybe Special papers) and degrees where everything rested on peak performance in a set of exams at the final stage of study.
My point is not so much about me and my political contemporaries. It could be said of any generation of politicians in my lifetime. Ministers and their civil service advisers tend to come from private schools where academic excellence was the norm and everyone went to university. Most state schools simply aren’t like that. Lots of people fail academic exams. Some children will have parents with no qualifications and they are likely to be on free school meals. There will be a group with a variety of special educational needs. And in a change from the class of 1985, many children in urban Britain won’t have English as their first language.
The Coalition has already enacted one big education reform that is designed for the realities of 21st century British schools, the pupil premium. The extra money for each child on free school meals should even up the chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The children sitting the first E-Bac in 2017 may have had the benefit of six years worth of pupil premium investment. But even that will not guarantee success for children faced with a one size fits all exam system, if the E-Bac is seen as the gold standard, the only qualification that matters.
There are undoubtedly elements of the current GCSE system that need changing. The fact that schools in the same city or county can use different exam boards for the same subjects gives room for doubt that valid comparisons are being made in those intensely scrutinised league tables. One exam board per subject will clear this up. The modular system makes you wonder how much in depth learning is actually retained over time. Coursework may be enjoyable and less pressurised than an exam but it gives an advantage to those with parents engaged in their children’s learning. All of this could have been reformed while keeping the GCSE system and a range of vocational courses.
I wonder why the government has decided on a new purely academic qualification. Why not implement the Tomlinson proposals for a diploma, shamefully dumped by Blair in 2007? Those proposals for reform were at least well thought through and tried to reconcile demands for academic rigour and vocational achievement.
But the big question is this – why do we still need a national test for 16 year olds? By the time the E-Bac starts in 2015 (and just for Maths, English and sciences at first) the school leaving age will effectively be 18. What will be so crucial about the June of the school or college year when someone turns 16? Not everyone is ready for measurement at the same time. Some are precocious, probably like most future Education ministers. Some are late developers. A worthwhile reform would be to allow people to build up different elements of a wide E-Bac diploma between say the ages of 15 and 18.
This is a big moment for a government that wants to see social mobility and a workforce that can compete with the best in the world. I’m pleased that Liberal Democrats in the coalition have won the argument against a two tier academic exam, a return to O’levels and CSEs. But I want to be sure that we’re designing a system that recognises achievement by every child in a school with a comprehensive intake. We must value not just those with finely tuned minds but also those with highly skilled fingers.