Stop sending students up the garden pathway

10th June 2016 at 00:00

Meet John Diligent. He was one of those pupils in school that didn’t make any big waves.

Neither particularly high-flying nor badly behaved, he trundled through school. Many of his teachers would have difficulty remembering him.

Having achieved mostly grade Ds and a couple of Cs at GCSE, John went on to join one of the new sixth forms that many of the new academy schools have opened recently, offering a “three-year pathway to A levels”.

It may surprise many in the general public that there are now large numbers of young people like John in sixth forms at school or college, but not doing A levels. In effect, they’re repeating their GCSE year in the hope of improving their grades.

John battled his way through to get two grade Es and a grade D at A level. Still not a confident student, he was offered a place on a foundation year at university, offering a “four-year extended degree”. It may surprise people that there are now large numbers of young people like John who are at university, but not doing degree-level study.

In effect, they’re repeating their A levels, so they can cope with a degree course.

John graduated with a third-class degree. I can’t remember in what subject, but he’d never been inspired by the rather humdrum science and maths teaching he received at school. I know it wasn’t anything to do with technology or engineering – skills that, in the UK, are in desperately short supply. If it had been, John’s job prospects would have been better.

John had by now spent seven years in full-time education since taking his GCSEs. He was 23 years old.

Sadly, he found it difficult to get a job and joined the ranks of unemployed graduates before finding a job in administration at the local council, finally joining the UK workforce at the age of 24.

Ironically, his salary isn’t large enough for him to worry yet about paying off the £50,000 student-loan debt he has accumulated. As recent national reports have shown, he’s typical of many recent graduates.

It didn’t have to be like this. John’s friend Mary Tryer was, like him, not a high-achieving pupil at school. She may not have been a natural scholar, but – like John – Mary had many valuable qualities. Reliable, hard-working and conscientious, she did very well after GCSEs as an apprentice at a local technology company and is now earning £35,000 at the age of 24, with no student debt.

I suspect that John might have been better suited to a learning pathway similar to Mary’s – one that developed his skills through practical application, where he could learn through mentoring rather than lecturing.

If only someone had given John – or his parents – better advice early on in his education. But perhaps he had felt pressurised by the school, had been too nervous to look at any option other than going to university, a path now firmly lodged in the popular psyche as the best route to social status and career success.

If only someone would put the brakes on three-year sixth forms and four-year degrees. They offer a long and expensive route to those like John, and do nothing to help Britain’s productivity problem.

In fact, they probably add to it.

John Diligent and Mary Tryer are, of course, fictional. But I have met many like them in today’s strangely misshapen education landscape.

Andy Forbes is principal of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London

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