The A-level results came out last week leaving many wondering about the significance of the 27th year running in which grades have increased and whether or not they still represent the ‘gold standard’ in school education etc.
These are perhaps interesting questions, but … are we missing the elephant in the room? I think so.
The long-standing primary purpose of A-levels has been to act as university entrance exams common across the whole country. Once upon a time that meant that they were designed to be attempted only by the 20%-25% most academically-gifted of the school-leaving cohort and ‘passed’ (in the sense of leading to university or polytechnic) by a tiny minority. Thirty years ago this was around 10% but it has risen erratically ever since. When Tony Blair became Prime Minister he famously introduced a target of 50% and it now stands at about 43% with the government increasingly constrained by funding difficulties.
So, A-levels are still doing their primary job, albeit in a context changed almost out of recognition. In doing so they provide a large MINORITY of school students with a clear goal for their school work. Even though in one sense this applies only to those in the sixth form in reality the benefit of this clear goal riffles down into the middle school and even perhaps to primary. I can still remember being distinctly bored by school aged around 14 but equally knowing that this was something I just had to get through because – well – because that was what one did on the way to getting A-levels, then to university and, in due course, getting a job.
But … that leaves the MAJORITY of school students with no clear target for their school days. It is a smaller majority than 30 years ago to be sure, but still a very substantial one. For them there is a black hole instead of the comparative simplicity of A-levels. What for them is the point of school? It’s not entirely clear although (or perhaps because) generations of initiatives have left a bewildering array of options. It’s a system that’s grown like topsy over the years; insiders may perhaps understand it but for ordinary mortals it’s far too complicated.
On last Thursday’s BBC R4 ‘Today’ program (the relevant bit starts 5 minutes in) Evan Davis put this very point to Higher Education Minister David Lammy, “It’s quite a complicated [system] isn’t it now. We have A-levels and we have all these other things – everything from HNDs, NVQs, BTEC, City & Guilds…. When you got to the Department did anyone sit down and try and explain it all to you… ?” and a little later, “…we seem to introduce one [a new qualification] every Parliament and never get rid of the old ones…”
The Minister did the normal political thing of answering another question so Evan came back with the thought behind his earlier question (at 7 mins in), “But you’re comfortable with the system? It doesn’t need tidying up or anything? It’s a logical and neat system?“ Again, the answer was to a different question leaving Evan to wrap-up by joking that, “We could introduce an exam in the different qualifications“
At this point I must declare an interest – or perhaps a prejudice – that dates back to my first job. Head office imposed on our manual staff a bonus system of byzantine complexity that had been developed in another Division. With our very different circumstances it was quite mad and led to perverse and illogical results, but worst of all, it was understood by almost no-one, and certainly not by the staff it applied to. With the link between effort and reward no longer clear and transparent output slumped and cost soared. Since then I have been a devotee of the KISS principle so I think Evan was right on the money when he implied that it’s not a logical and neat system and suggested that a tidy up is needed. Make that a total overhaul. The ‘system’ for those not aspiring to go to university is not, in fact, a coherent system at all, but merely the residue of failed initiatives accumulated over many years.
Both the individuals concerned and the wider economy suffer terrible damage from this wholly unsatisfactory approach.
Although I’m sure all the civil servants and ministers at the DCSF would hotly deny it, the reality is that young people are treated as statistical objects, gaming counters to be manoeuvred into desirable outcomes. It is, of course, the archetypal producer-push approach that invariably fails in other sectors as it is failing here. Moreover, the education establishment in Whitehall (and the education industry in the country) has a one-eyed view of education that sees ’academic’ as good and anything else as ‘failure’. The ‘failures’ are treated just like the sports ‘left-overs’ at my old school - the not-very-sporty ones who would never play for the school football team. Staff went through the motions because it was timetabled and they were paid but that was it; no passion, no energy, no inventiveness and certainly no attempt to discover the hidden talents that certainly abounded outside of football.
For the individuals concerned the damage was highlighted this report last week of the youth drop-out rate hitting new highs. It seems that a shocking 1 in 6 or 835,000 18 to 24 year-olds are now NEETS (Not in Education, Employment or Training) after rising by 100,000 over the last year. At this rate it will soon be 1 in 3 of those not likely to go to university. But there is worse – recent research looking back at those who were NEETS 10 years ago discovered that 15% had already died. Even if that figure proves to be very much less going forward, the human cost will still be incalculable.
Is it possible to overstate just how obscene this is? I don’t think so, and that’s even before considering the economic costs to the nation which is immense as young people who should be contributing socially and financially are reduced to dysfunctional overheads.
The establishment’s inability to comprehend the importance of vocational skills and do something about it is a traditional failing of the British political system - there has been a black hole at the centre of our economy since the industrial revolution. As early as 1835 Richard Cobden wrote after a visit to America that “our only chance of national prosperity lies in the timely re-modelling of our system, so as to put it as nearly as possible on an equality with the improved management of the Americans.” Then again just after the Great Exhibition of 1851 the scientist and Liberal politician Lyon Playfair observed that European industry was bound to overtake Britain if she failed to alter her outlook and methods. In 1882-84 the Samuelson Royal Commission on Technical Instruction visited many continental countries and reported, inter alia, that “The one point in which Germany is overwhelmingly superior to England is its schools, and in the education of all classes of its people … the dense ignorance so common among workmen in England is unknown …” (my emphasis). In 1942 the Permanent Secretary to the English Board of Education noted that over a wide range of German industries there was 100% vocational training as against 10% for the UK. (Sourced from Corelli Barnett’s ‘Audit of War’ ).
The educational establishment may be all at sea over non-academic alternatives but parents are not. As the BBC reported only last week, “The majority of parents (90%) believe schools should teach vocational and practical courses, as well as academic subjects ...” and that, “…78% thought schools did not equip young people adequately for the world of work“. Wow! That’s way off the usual scale of political consensus. The difficulty here is not parents or employers but the political establishment; the Westminster Village (and I mean ALL parties) just DOES NOT GET IT any more now than it ever did. Time and again unflattering comparisons have been drawn (the above are only a small selection) and yet invariably the establishment response has been either to ignore the evidence or, at best, to tinker round the edges. When panics periodically erupt in response to the manifest system failure, the Westminster Village responds in the only ways it knows – by stretching traditional definitions of ’academic’ to breaking point, by loudly announcing ’initiatives’ and by throwing money at the problem in the hope that some will stick and that public disquiet will be appeased by evidence of action.
Sadly, the Liberal Democrats are not immune from this sort of failed thinking. For instance in Policy Paper 92 “Thriving in a Globalised World - A Strategy for Britain” (pdf) (circulated recently with the Conference agenda) the section on “Improving skills” kicks off by waffling about the changes globalisation has brought to cross-border working patterns (paragraph 2.1.1 et seq.), goes on to discuss statistical changes to demand for unskilled labour and the difficulty of competing on wages with workers from the new EU accession states before making a raft of detailed policy proposals. Some (not all) are fine, but taken as a whole they reflect a top-down approach, amount to yet more tinkering round the edges and simply don’t do the business.
This needs to change. Specifically Liberal Democrats should make a total rethink a top priority with a view to making a proper system a major plank of our platform at the next election. After all, it might prove popular with the 90% of parents who already agree with this view! And that’s not to mention employers and the rest who understand perfectly well that the existing system is badly broken.
Which just leaves one final thought: a ‘proper’ system of practical and vocational training would probably be far cheaper and would definitely be far more cost-effective than what we have now so the financial case points us in the same direction.