There is only a weak correlation between the publicity sought and gained for a policy announcement and the impact made by that policy. For example, the encouragement of free schools is a headline Coalition policy, yet not only is the proportion of pupils so far enrolled in these schools a tiny fraction but many free schools may end up providing an education not easy to distinguish from other Academies and maintained schools. In contrast – as Paul Johnson argued yesterday - apparently small changes in tax incentives can lead to major shifts in behaviour and revenues.
There has today been relatively little coverage of an announcement which could have major implications for the whole pattern of secondary schooling. In a letter to two college principals, the thoughtful Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock (who recently visited and commended the RSA Academy in Tipton), has said that from next year FE colleges which meet certain, relatively permissive, criteria will be free to admit 14-16 year olds on to their rolls.
Overall, this is surely a good thing. It offers pupils – particularly those least engaged in a traditional academic curriculum – the opportunity to attend institutions which may better suit their needs and which will tend to have stronger connections to the world of work. It could also be an important step towards a shift in the way we think about the stages of education so that the 11-14 stage focusses on universal core academic and other competencies, while the 14-18 stage is much more oriented around the educational and vocational routes chosen by young people. In turn this might lead to a gradual, and surely welcome, reduction in the obsessive focus on GCSE scores at sixteen.
Whilst one might hope that the way this new opportunity develops would reflect the choices and best interests of young people, in reality local factors and organisational incentives will probably be more determining.
In relation to the former, the key issue will be whether there is an FE college that meets the Hancock criteria in the vicinity. But as currently nearly 300 colleges do make the grade, it will be organisational interest which will most mediate the opening of new options for young people.
There are two key incentives to consider; intriguingly they point in opposite directions.
On the one hand, the kind of pupils who might be most attracted to FE may also be the ones least likely to meet the 5A-C or EBac benchmark, so schools may see offloading these pupils as a way of improving their scores and league table positions. This perverse incentive would not be so strong if the focus of school evaluation and accountability was on three levels of progression but – regrettably – the Government seems to be de-emphasising this measure.
On the other hand, schools and school leaders generally see their size as a symbol of status and success and might not want to see those pupils who have a choice voting with their feet at the end of year nine. Furthermore, the pupils most likely to take the FE option are more likely to attract the Pupil Premium, something which will make them sought after by both schools and colleges.
As Shadow Education Minister Karen Buck has emphasised, this potentially radical shift needs to be carefully planned and overseen. But two factors mitigate against this aspiration. First, the ambiguity and confusion over the role of the only body which has the span and legitimacy to take on the task of coordination – local authorities; second, the evidence that the devolving of careers advice to schools has – entirely predictably – led to a decline in spending. It must also be assumed that the advice is also less independent and more driven by the school’s self interest.
Given the traditionalism of many of his colleagues, Matthew Hancock may be careful about what he says bur he does, I sense, recognise there should more on offer to secondary school pupils than the EBac, and more that is vocationally related. His letter could come to be seen as one of the most important reforming actions of this Government.
It is vital now that central and local Government, schools, and colleges and independent careers advisors make this change work for young people, and not allow it to be scuppered by poor planning and organisational gaming.
Obviously and for good reason, those who – like me – cherish the RSA’s independent, non-aligned status would be worried if the Society started to praise the policies of one particular political party. But what if a party adopts a pre-existing RSA idea?
This is happening today as Ed Miliband unveils his idea of a technical baccalaureate for those students who do not intend to pursue an academic route to university.
Which school is arguably the lead in developing and piloting just such a qualification? Step proudly forward: the RSA Academy.
Emerging naturally from its commitment to a balanced, competency based and demanding curriculum, the RSA Academy has been at the forefront of developing the IBCC (the International Baccalaureate Career Related Certificate). For a slightly tongue in cheek introduction to the IBCC this article in the Telegraph (not a newspaper one might normally associate with educational innovation) is useful.
So two cheers for Ed Miliband. One for focussing on the less academic – a group generally given a shockingly low profile in national educational debate. Two, for giving the RSA Academy a great opportunity to showcase its fantastic work. However, as is typical (and perhaps understandable) for politicians, there is a danger that Miliband is being a little simplistic.
For example, the IBCC, while absolutely being aimed at those who do not want a classic academic route into a Russell Group University, can be a very good stepping stone into HE. Also, while the IBCC has strong vocational and competency based elements, academic study is also integral to it. Indeed like the EBacc there is a requirement to study a modern language. Finally – and it is a separate point emerging from other RSA research – while there is a strong case for Miliband’s insistence that pupils continue learning English and Maths up to aged 18, it is also important that what they learn is integral to the overall curriculum. So, for example, pupils who have not achieved a C or better in Maths GCSE should not necessarily be expected to keep plugging away at the same content (a dispiriting and generally unsuccessful endeavour) but be offered a maths qualification which is more vocational and practical in content.
So, there is a lot more thinking required before Labour’s new idea is watertight. And as Michael Gove’s response seems to be that the Government is already planning to do what Labour is promising, there is plenty of scope for the RSA to be involved in the debate without showing favour to any individual party.
Having said which, it can surely only be good news that for once the politicians are fighting to win credibility for their offer to all pupils not just the academically- inclined sons and daughters of the middle class.
Here is Michael Gove’s reply to my July Questions. As I said yesterday, I am very grateful to him for finding the time. Instead of giving my response to his response today – which would make an already long post even longer – I’ll wait until tomorrow, by which time I hope also to be able to draw on comments from other readers.
1. Curriculum content should contain the classical canon of history, literature and scientific knowledge and we should pull back from seeking to make content more relevant to the contemporary concerns and lives of young people. Young people should be discouraged from pursuing newer or non traditional subjects like media studies, which are not seen as credible by the best universities.
MG: I know what you’re driving at but I think the distinction you draw, the “dividing line” if you like, is too stark.
I have nothing against new programmes of study per se. I certainly have no wish to dissuade any one who wishes to pursue a course in media studies if that is their whole heart’s desire. And I certainly have no bias against innovation more broadly. Indeed our reforms are designed to encourage new ways of thinking and doing. In particular, they make it possible for teachers to play a bigger role in shaping schools, the curriculum and teaching.
The current problem with subjects like media studies relates to the way our league tables work. They encourage schools to push a subject which, currently, actually limits opportunities.
Irrespective of my views, it’s a fact that some of our best universities consider media studies to be a less rigorous preparation for higher education than other courses. Students who take it up limit their capacity to choose freely between universities. Its a simple truth that a pass in physics or further maths opens more doors.
But some schools still steer students towards subjects such as media studies because they know its easier to secure a pass. That easier pass will boost their league table ranking. It is no accident that the huge rise in students taking media studies GCSE has occurred in state schools, where league tables matter so much, while in private schools, where the interests and demands of students and their families currently hold more sway, there has been no similar rush to embrace the subject.
But let me stress again, my aim is to widen the scope of choice available to the next generation. I would like students to choose the course of study which most inspires them, and best prepares them for the future, by widening the range of opportunities available to them.
In that context, I am indebted to the work of the Scottish social democratic thinker Lindsay Paterson. If you’ll allow me to quote from his essay “The Renewal of Social Democratic Educational Thought in Scotland” he puts better than I ever could what I think is the right approach to take…
“The anger of radical campaigners against a divided secondary education was because it denied working class people access to a general education; they shared the aim of extending access to the best that has been thought and said… the democratic intellect was to be as much about the intellect as the access to it; and yet policy since the 1980s has rather neglected the importance of enabling students to engage properly with intellectual difficulty and intellectual worth. Instead policy has approached the problem of motivation by diluting seriousness, by fragmenting difficult programmes of study into modularised segments and by trying to divert students into intellectually undemanding courses of ostensible vocational relevance.”
2. The curriculum should be delivered though traditional subject disciplines and not through approaches emphasising cross cutting themes and competencies, like for example, the RSA’s Opening Minds.
MG: Again, my view is that choice is what matters, and more schools should have more freedom to pursue the curriculum path which they believe will enhance the opportunities available to their students.
But, also again I would quote Lindsay Paterson:
“Programmes of general liberal education are better at preparing people for life as decent citizens than any other kinds of learning. That was something which old radicals understood well. You could make citizens for the new era of mass democracy by equipping them with the cultural capacities which the aristocratic or bourgeois ruling classes had acquired through their schooling. Citizenship should permeate many types of study – literature, history, geography, politics, science, religion.”
It is instructive that many of those schools with the best record in raising achievement for children from poorer backgrounds – from Mossbourne Community Academy to the KIPP schools in the US follow a traditional curriculum which provides the sort of general liberal education Lindsay admires.
3. (Something I heard emphasised by your number two Nick Gibb), the practice of the best schools shows traditional chalk and talk forms of pedagogy are superior to practical, project based, forms of learning.
MG: It is certainly the case that the tried and tested methods of whole class teaching, followed up by personal tuition for those who need it, are highly effective.
But I am a strong believer in practical learning. I would like to see a bigger place for practical experimental work in science teaching. I believe practical problem solving as part of outdoor learning, whether in geography or sport, is hugely important. And I very strongly believe we need to improve practical education for those who do not wish to pursue academic learning beyond sixteen with much more rigorous and robust vocational qualifications.
4. Schools should focus much more on the core activity of imparting knowledge. Children’s wider development is best enhanced through extra curricular activities such as schools clubs and societies but not through ‘teaching’ life skills or well-being.
Again, I fear the division you’re drawing up may be misleading. I certainly believe that the most important task a school has is giving children the knowledge they need to make the widest possible range of choices about the future and play the fullest possible part in our democracy. To that end the sort of liberal education Lindsay Paterson talks about is the right course to follow.
But I certainly think good schools will also want to impart, complementary, practical knowledge, whether its cooking, sex and relationships education or basic questions of good manners and consideration for others. I’m not sure I like the term “life skills” but the sort of areas I’ve just mentioned would, I think, certainly come under that umbrella…
5. Schools should be institutions that are primarily or even exclusively about learning and should not be required to engage in the wider delivery of children’s or community services.
MG: Schools should be about learning, absolutely. If schools wish to offer other services, wonderful. If other services support learning, fantastic. But schools are places for teaching and learning.
6. Rather than blurring the divide between the academic and vocational learning we should assert it, with, for example, the 14-19 Diplomas restricted to vocational content.
MG: The Diplomas have had a pretty poor reception so far, but I am interested in seeing how we can make the best of them.
More broadly, I certainly do not want a rigid divide between the academic and vocational. I certainly want to see more and more students pursuing academic courses for longer, but I also anticipate that many students, as well as acquiring a basic grounding in an academic core will also pursue genuinely rigorous practical qualifications in fields employers value.
7. Implicitly, strategies to widen participation in learning should not include developing forms of content and levels of assessment which enable more children to succeed: More should rise to the bar, the bar shouldn’t be moved to allow more to jump it.
MG: The question contains a logical flaw. More children should certainly be helped to succeed. But not by lowering the bar. Instead we should help them to escape the constraints of disadvantage which may have held them back in the past, so they can aim higher.
Sometimes a series of unconnected events conspire to turn a vague conviction into a firm opinion. Try these three:
I asked one of my sons, a bright boy in year nine of a fast improving school, why he thought the mangetout I was serving for his supper were so-called. As he failed to identify either the word for eat or for all, I realised that in nearly two hundred hours of French lessons he has learnt less than he could have in a single afternoon if the teaching was effective and he were motivated to learn. I am pretty sure this is true for many of the other subjects he has ‘studied’ in Key Stage Three, and that the lack of learning is common among his schoolmates.
Yesterday a group of Cabinet Office policy advisers came to the RSA to speak to me and a member of our education team about future policies. As I spoke to them I found myself arguing that school education, particularly secondary school education, is simply failing; a huge amount of the time that older children spend in school is completely wasted. What is needed is not just a loosening of the curriculum or making marginal improvements in teaching quality (welcome though these changes are) but much more radical thinking, questioning some of the fundamental assumption about the purposes of education and the way schools are organized.
This morning there was an excellent leader in The Times (not naturally one of our most radical publications) taking its prompt from the postponement of GCSEs due to the weather to argue that England’s pupils are over-examined and under-educated
The RSA Opening Minds curriculum was developed precisely because so much of what went on in Key Stage Three (11-14) was clearly pointless, and the schools that have used OM best have transformed learning for this age group. But what has come home to me is the system wide nature of failure. The problem is not primarily that schools aren’t doing what is expected of them but that what they bare being asked to do is deeply misguided.
I know from previous comments on these pages that many of this blog’s readers will agree (indeed will think it is blindingly obvious). But there will be much disagreement about what to do. My starting point is this; schools need the space to become intelligent institutions. By this I mean three things:
Places which have aligned what they do with the core real-world mission (not maximising exam passes, but helping young people enjoy life and achieve their full potential)
Places which are reflexive, by which I mean everyone in the institution (and its key external stakeholders and partners) feel they have been involved in developing the mission, sign up to it and have a stake in making it real.
Places with a high degree of accountability (particularly lateral accountability); so that people have the confidence and trust to be open about their own and each other’s contribution to the mission and how that could be enhanced. The problem with the Government’s focus on teacher quality is that it sees quality primarily as a function of teacher selection and training and (negative) performance management when what matters most is the way teachers are deployed, the way they collaborate and their motivation as members of the school community.
A combination of over centralisation, narrow parental objectives and producerism (even though Government, parents and trade unions genuinely think they want what’s best for children) ensures that only exceptional schools with exceptional leaders meet these criteria, and then only by skating on thin ice. The ultimate measure of reforms should be whether they make it more or less likely that more schools can become truly intelligent institutions.
Often in public policy the changes that can come from reform aren’t as great as policy makers and politicians, seeking a raison d’etre, imagine. But in relation to secondary schooling the transformation that could be wrought by a complete rethinking of how we do schooling are, I am convinced, huge.
This morning, as I walked down St James Street reflecting on an excellent breakfast belatedly to mark the launch of the Times science supplement ‘Eureka’, who should I bump into but Michael Gove. Although he was engrossed in a phone conversation he put his interlocutor on hold, ‘Ah, Matthew’ said the chief intellectual architect of Cameron Conservativism ‘you are most definitely number two in my priority list’.
In this, I assume Michael was referring to the list of questions I publicly posed him after his lecture here last June. ‘Number two’ does sound hopeful as long as this list is both stable and fast moving. I fear however there have been many other top priorities over these last few months and yet more may still emerge.
Indeed it has taken so long for him to reply that I find the ground shifting under my feet. Although my questions were based on Michael’s forthright speech here, I did fall into the trap of assuming that one’s opinions on education line up neatly under two headings: traditional or progressive.
Traditionalists emphasise the importance of core knowledge, the authority of teachers, the need for schools not to be distracted from the task of academic pedagogy, the dangers of mixed ability teaching. They also tend to be sceptical of claimed improvements in standards, alleging widespread dumbing down. Progressives put more focus on the wider development of the child, they think children need to acquire competencies as well as knowledge, they see learning more as a partnership between teacher and learner, they encourage schools to engage with other agencies concerned about children and the wider community. They are more likely to argue that mixed ability teaching can be just as successful in terms of results and is better in terms of children’s self esteem and sociability.
But there are several problems with the dichotomous view:
Close up, the differences tend to become more elusive. For example, supporters of competence based curricula are not anti-knowledge; they think theirs is the best way for pupils to acquire knowledge. Traditionalists recognise the wider development of the child is important but they put more store by things like schools sport and clubs as the way to do this
Arguments about how best to teach cut across other arguments, particularly about how much of what schools do should be centrally prescribed. Is it better for progressives to have a centralising government that broadly supports their approach or a decentralising one which doesn’t?
And, of course, the killer problem with resolving this argument; good traditionalist teaching is better than bad progressive teaching and vice versa.
Almost every review of these arguments attaches the same caveat to its conclusions. Here for example is the last sentence of an article by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review about books by arch traditionalist E.D. Hirsch (who is often quoted by Gove) and ultra progressive Mike Rose:
‘Whatever the merits of this or that testing regime or this or that curriculum, the only way to break up the impasse would be for governments and philanthropies to put in place real incentives and rewards for tenanted, well-educated, passionately committed teachers – on whom, as everyone knows, everything finally depends’.
If Michael does ever come back to me I hope his response will provide the basis not for a heated disagreement but to start to unpack a traditionalist-progressive dichotomy which, perhaps, both he and I have been guilty of exaggerating.