We have heard and seen much debate about academisation in recent weeks but perhaps an even bigger story is that of "academicisation". The idea of intellectualising our entire education system from top to bottom is one that has taken hold in recent times. The relegation and degradation of those subjects considered of less value by the powers that be; art, design and technology, drama and so on has accelerated.
The most telling example of this trend, a trend very much inspired by Michael Gove and many before him, is the introduction of Progress 8 and EBac, where purely academic subjects are placed above others in the hierarchy of curriculum value and school performance indicators. But why?
I was recently reading how, with the Education Act 1946, the 11+ was first conceived. Children would all be entitled to free education post-11; however, those who failed the new 11+ exam would be expected, if not forced, to leave school at 15 to pursue an apprenticeship or to start full-time work. As much as this system limited the potential of some, it also suited many more. It allowed those who preferred the idea of training to be a mechanic, plumber, electrician or engineer the immediate means by which to do that. It offered them a definitive and targeted alternative. Of course, many ended up in completely different types of school, technical colleges offering a simple and direct route into particular industries. For many, that route has either closed (due to the decline of UK manufacturing) or perhaps more tellingly, just isn't offered or promoted any more.
More recently the system has evolved in such a way to steer young people on a certain pathway; towards higher education. Are we encouraging young people to want to be bricklayers? We need bricklayers and they can earn up to £1,000 a week in London. Are we shouting about what an incredibly lucrative and skilled profession being a plumber is? Some can earn up to £100,000 a year these days. Are we encouraging students to look for modern apprenticeships or other opportunities in the engineering sector? Do students even know what engineers do?
Apparently not. In a recent report from the House of Lords social mobility committee, it highlighted how a section of young people are being disenfranchised by our education system. Young people who do not go to university are "overlooked and left behind", says the report. It concludes that those who don’t go on to A levels or higher education are being ignored and left behind, receiving little of the attention that is garnered on those taking the now conventional route.
There is a disconnect between what our country and economy needs and what our education system is providing.
The frequency of use of the words “exam” and “progress” now seems to far outweigh that of words like “skilled trade” and “modern apprenticeship” within classrooms and schools. The vocabulary of school life is subconsciously narrowing career aspirations, especially as Year 11 draws near. Tunnel vision is pervading and all roads lead to the exam hall.
Why? Why are we not offering equal weight and stature to success in an area that might not only be desirable to the young person but also desirable to the country as a whole?
I want to be clear; this is not an argument for non-inclusivity in education, this is not an argument for the dumbing down of the curriculum and it certainly isn't an argument that literacy and numeracy aren't important. But – and I think it’s a significant “but” – my argument is that we need a complete reconfiguration of the equilibrium between academic and non-academic subjects. We need to value both equally. We need to cast away any form of prejudice against the latter because the world is changing.
I wrote recently about how, in the long term, the value and prominence of exam results may lessen significantly. The value of skills and experiences could be paramount in a “project portfolio” on a national database charting what the young person can actually do in very implicit terms; play the piano, speak German, debate in public, choreograph dance moves or repair kitchen sinks. Furthermore, in countries like China, their favourite consumable from the UK is music, theatre, culture, creativity. We should be encouraging children from as early as possible to pursue what they are good at, regardless of where that fits in on the curriculum spectrum.
If the government said to schools, "We are flipping the system to the other extreme, rewarding schools on how many students qualified in certain trades further down the line," would the language and messages in schools change? And which one of these extremes is better?
Of course, parity would be better, just parity.