A new crossroads at 14?
Ahead of a speech on the subject I am making tonight (I will do anything to avoid celebrating my birthday), a few thoughts about the implicit direction of Coalition schools policy….
One of the less heralded parts of the Autumn Statement was the announcement by the Chancellor that the Government will now be supporting the creation of at least twenty five University Technical Colleges. These colleges (only one is so far up and running) offer an education which is broad and demanding (40 week year, seven hour days for example) with an overall emphasis on technical skills.
It is interesting to put this announcement together with the thrust of Government policy on the academic curriculum and examinations. Promoting the eBac along with reducing modularity and retakes is part of an explicit policy of raising the academic bar. Unless the Government can achieve an unprecedented improvement in attainment, this suggests an abandonment of the goal of every child reaching the headline grade for academic attainment.
Together these policies can be seen to be inching the English system towards a more explicit selection/choice at fourteen.
As a self-styled educational progressive, it might be assumed that I would oppose such a drift. In fact I have no problem with the principle; it is the practice which concerns me.
If only a minority (say 35-40%) of school pupils pursue a primarily academic route (aiming towards degrees in top universities) perhaps the rest could be liberated from the often joyless ‘teaching to the test’ that is involved in schools trying to raise their headline figure for ’5 A-Cs including English and Maths’. A strong technical route ranging in ability from those aspiring to STEM subject degrees in HE to those aiming for good vocational qualifications and skilled apprenticeships could make technical education more accessible and higher status.
But notwithstanding the massive organisational issues involved in clearer post 14 routes, it isn’t hard to identify the dangers. If from the start the academic route is seen as the best, then it will be even more fully colonised by the middle class than is good schooling already (see today’s excellent RSA report on satisfactory schools for further evidence of school disadvantage heaping on social disadvantage). Indeed this will mean post 14 selection would actually be post 11 selection as schools marketed themselves as guaranteeing pupils the higher route.
Even if the technical route could grow in size status and popularity it still leaves the question of those who are neither suited to academic nor advanced technical education. It could be that there are only two strands post 14 (many parts of Germany are now merging the technical and vocational streams of their much vaunted tripartite system) but the danger here is that the idea of ‘technical’ education becomes devalued. Partly because it is not yet explicit about the post 14 choice the Government has not yet even begun to address this issue.
However, it is worth exploring. A new secondary schooling system should be based on universal access to four basics:
- Every pupil to get the core knowledge they need and beyond this for curricula and examinations to be fit for purpose and stretching.
- An education which attends to the fuller development of young people as confident, rounded 21st century citizens.
- A system which is committed to exploring, finding and developing the educational enthusiasm of every child.
- A system which as far as possible offers personalised education with flexibility for children to move onto different routes in line with developing preferences and aptitudes.
It might be possible for a system with three more differentiated routes post 14 to deliver this. But only if policy is from the outset committed to promoting genuine meritocracy (meaning extra support for the disadvantaged which goes beyond the pupil premium), parity of esteem between different routes and a robust and compelling account of the offer for the third leg of the tripartite division.
The Coalition has many policies and ideas about schooling and the system is changing fast around us. But beyond the usual platitudes, ministers are very cloudy about its final destination. This is partly deliberate in that it is by definition hard to predict the future when the key institutions (schools) are more diverse and autonomous. But an idea as radical and far reaching as more differentiated post 14 routes needs to be explored in a broader context. For unless it is accompanied by other shifts in policy, public assumptions and expectations, it could simply reinforce educational inequality and exclusion.