'Today the "brightest and best" trump the "decent and hardworking" – but with Brexit, things must change'

15th February 2018 at 12:55
Instead of putting all its energy into grammar schools and A levels, the government should focus on improving further education colleges and apprenticeships, writes the former head of Harrow School

In 1959, the Crowther Report stated: "There is a tendency of long historical standing in English educational thought (it is not nearly so visible in some other countries) to concentrate too much on the interests of the abler pupils in any group that is being considered and to forget about the rest."

In 2017, three members of my family enrolled with a further education college. First was my 20-year-old nephew who dropped out of school when he was 17 for personal reasons but would have been capable of top grades at A level: he has enrolled to study computer science. It is further education that has invariably given second chances to people like him.

Next there was a 16-year-old nephew who has autism and had struggled to cope with school, but who is clearly very intelligent and keen on engineering. These were the first members of my family not to go to university, but both are very able.

Finally, I enrolled to take an adult education course at my local college. We found ourselves in a system that I knew little about, despite having spent my whole life in education.

The academically least successful 50 per cent of young people in England face a number of problems. Some will have struggled at school since the day they started. They attended lessons day in, day out from the age of 5 to 16, but the exams they took at the end of that 11-year slog might well have left them with a sense of failure. They might have passed some GCSEs, but at best their grades were modest.

The path trodden after GCSEs is clear enough for the more academically successful 50 per cent. They go on to take A levels and a university degree – qualifications that the whole population understand and recognise – qualifications that have been around for many years. But for the less academic the way ahead is much less clear.

Whereas their fathers or grandfathers, and even their mothers and grandmothers, quickly picked up employment at the age of 16 or younger, for them life will be less straightforward. Jobs in manufacturing and services, which formerly supported many towns and cities in the Midlands and North of England, have gone. Some of the jobs that remain – in the large construction sector, for example – have been filled by immigrants from Eastern Europe.

For these young people, their situation is made all the more difficult because of their family background. Many will have had few books at home. Some will not have had a father in the house when they were being brought up. A disproportionate number will have been on free school meals at school. Many will be boys. Some will be from minority ethnic backgrounds, which, for a variety of reasons, makes the transition to a good job more difficult. Some will be disabled or have other special needs.

They are not a small group. They are half of all young people; most of whom are mentally and physically able to do a good job if trained and given the opportunity.

'Focus on further education, not grammar schools'

In England, our A levels and our better universities are as good as any others anywhere on the planet. But every international study tells us that the gap between the top 50 per cent and the bottom 50 per cent of pupils is wider in England than in almost any other country in the developed world. So this is where we have the greatest capacity to improve. This is where we would expect any sensible government to focus its attention. Not on grammar schools but on further education colleges. Not on A levels but on apprenticeships.

In the past, the unskilled bottom 50 per cent were a huge asset. They found work because there were jobs available for those who were unskilled or who could be easily trained on the job. Some of these jobs still exist but in diminishing numbers. If we are to be a grown-up, standalone nation then we need to become more like other standalone countries, like South Korea or Japan, where very few pupils are allowed to fail at school and where the less academic go on to carefully planned, high-quality training programmes that lead to work.

David Goodhart makes the point that in recent years people have been judged more and more by their exam qualifications, their cognitive ability. The "brightest and best" trump the "decent and hardworking".

But a good society needs to balance the three Hs – head, hand and heart. We undervalue the skills of construction workers, engineers, artisans – those who work with their hands. And we undervalue those whose emotional intelligence makes them so important to the caring professions, such as nurses, early years teachers and those working in social care.

Post-Brexit, it is likely that immigration flow into the UK will fall, so upskilling the domestic population to fill positions that would otherwise have been taken by EU workers will become important. The current performance of many pupils at age 16 suggests that this will be difficult.

Barnaby Lenon is a former head of Harrow School and chair of the Independent Schools Council. You can pre-order his book Other People's Children: what happens to those in the bottom 50 per cent academically? here

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Crowther, G. (1959) A report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England). London: The Stationery Office.

Goodhart, D. (2017) The road to somewhere. London: Hurst and Company.

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