“If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through." That peerless quote, uttered by Blackadder’s addled commanding officer General Melchett, neatly sums up the attitude of the Department for Education.
In response to Conservative MP and chair of the Commons Education Select Committee Robert Halfon’s recent criticism of GCSEs, the DfE said: “GCSEs are the gold-standard qualification at age 16 and a passport to further study and employability. They were recently reformed so that their demand matches that in other high-performing countries and better prepare students for work and further study.”
The truth is that GCSEs do not prepare students for work and further study. In fact, the opposite is the case.
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Absent from skill sets
The Goveian reforms aimed at eliminating assessed coursework, increasing course content, and severely curtailing the number of opportunities candidates have to take and pass the terminal exam, have led to the severe diminution of the learning experience for a generation of children. Consequently, they have gone on to their sixth forms or FE colleges with little or no experience in collaboration, project work, or independent research – the very skills that universities decry as absent from the skill sets of many first-year undergraduates.
Skills of literacy and numeracy must, of course, be taught and learned as part of any school curriculum. However, what is emerging now is the realisation in universities and businesses that GCSE exams are placed arbitrarily and meaninglessly at a point along what should be a continuous learning and developing experience at school for young people.
Because everyone now has to stay in full-time education, or follow an apprenticeship or training, until 18, there is clearly no point in having a legacy exam which was introduced at a time when young people could leave school at 16 and enter, "qualified", the world of work.
GCSEs stifle creative teaching because teachers end up teaching to the test. So rather than the 11 to 18 school experience being conceived and delivered as a continuous, sustained and increasing curriculum that inculcates understanding and develops skills, it is instead divided into vast subject silos, only a small number of which are currently in favour with its political architects.
Even when taking a hardheaded approach to the requirements of cutting edge industries, the orthodoxy of deeming some educational subjects worthy (science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem), English etc) and others less so (arts and crafts, technical) is suspect. Not so long ago, the educationalist Bill Lucas wrote in Tes that a focus on Stem subjects at school is not sufficient for would-be engineers.
Rather, he says, the world-class civil engineering department at UCL has shown that undergraduates do not need maths or science at A level in order to excel, which turns the accepted politically driven orthodoxy on its head. Lucas suggests that other subjects matter too, art and design in particular, in helping to facilitate what he proposes are the necessary habits of mind. Clearly, the government’s obsession with "facts" and end of course exams as the only true measure of competence requires fresh scrutiny.
An eye on industry
Unfortunately, UCL appears to be an outlier among the so-called "high value" universities, which remain wedded to the same old combinations of A levels for evidence of suitability. For example, Oxford University runs a limited number of computer-oriented courses at undergraduate level, with an eye on industry trends but no obvious industry or emerging specialism connection from the course descriptions. Entry requirements appear to refer to A levels – and highly specific ones at that. It is encouraging, however, that many of the ‘new’ universities, the former polytechnics, offer imaginative programmes in emerging creative and technological fields, and are flexible (whilst still demanding) in their entry requirements.
The forensic computing and security BSC (Hons) programme at Bournemouth University provides a way into an expanding industry – covering computers, mobile devices, satellite navigation systems, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.
At Northumbria University, the computer science with games development programme covers a range of computing specialisms, combining theoretical and technical knowledge and skills, with a particular focus on games development. An applicant can access that course with 120-128 tariff points ABB/BBB at A level, or DMM (distinction, merit, merit) for BTEC extended diploma. So, for both of these courses, each teaching new economy skills for expanding industry sectors, a vocational gateway is possible, with a wide range of subjects acceptable.
The problem is that secondary-level vocational education has not kept pace with the vision and ambition of universities such as these. Partly because of GCSEs, and the absence of any really meaningful alternative to traditional knowledge-based education post-16, vocational education has been seriously neglected.
Enrolments and qualifications in key industry sectors have fallen dramatically since 2010, and uptake of apprenticeships has been disappointing. University Technical Colleges (UTCs) have been advocated and supported fervently by Lord Baker, who, as Ken Baker, introduced via the 1988 Education Reform Act the National Curriculum and GCSEs. However, UTCs have had a high failure and closure rate, with more than half of enrolled students dropping out.
Some commentators see the inability of FE colleges and the like to select as the root of the problem – not least as it encourages schools to dump students that threaten to drag down their league table standings, and requires FE to take them on. Conversely, recent reports suggest that a sizeable proportion of schools omit to advise students of opportunities elsewhere in vocational education. There is surely something awry in encouraging schools to be competitive and accountable in the ways that militate against the success of vocational education.
Academic and vocational pathways
For a reminder of what education might, and I would say should, look like in our schools and colleges, we need look no further than the 2004 Tomlinson Report. The report recommended replacing GCSEs and A levels with a diploma covering both academic and vocational pathways, and so allowing for their combination. Crucially, the authors favoured diverse assessment methodologies, and encouraged the starting of vocational work early – at 14.
Such an approach would bring the opportunity to properly embed vocational education in our schools, and help to eliminate some of the distortions implicit in current measures of school performance – especially if policy makers were to adopt Mr Halfon’s proposal that it be measured on baccalaureate results at 18 and the destination of leavers, rather than the current unsatisfactory arrangements. And if such an arrangement were to push schools and colleges into working properly as partners, then so much the better.
Magnus Bashaarat is head of independent school Bedales