Key Stage 4: what price a campaign?

It’s over 5 years now since Michael Gove’s decision tomichael-gove bow to his critics and retain GCSEs. But despite this humiliating reversal,  Gove, who had arrogantly lectured the education establishment on the need to introduce new English Baccalaureate certificates in key subjects, still managed to impose his educational priorities and undermine much of what was once considered to be ‘the teachers exam’.

He set about replacing modularised assessment allowing student friendly learning and assessment with, where ever possible, a two- year ‘end of course’ traditional written exam, ending ‘tiered’ papers and introducing a new grading system designed to ensure much more differentiation between those students scoring higher marks. All of this has been in the name of ‘rigour’. Though not receiving anywhere as much attention, A-levels have been reformed in similar ways, with AS level no longer being a midway point to allow greater flexibility.

Gove, influenced by US English Literature professor ED Hirsch who argued that American schools have a ‘knowledge deficit’ – with many student, being denied the things ‘they need to know’, also insisted on clear content specifications, outlining very clearly what students should be taught. For example, ‘at least one play by Shakespeare, at least one 19th century novel’, to quote from the original English Literature draft.

Gove also sought to differentiate academic knowledge from practical, applied and vocational learning, publishing plans to prevent ‘GCSE equivalent’ vocational qualifications being counted in school league table scores claiming these are much less demanding academically and require less curriculum time. 

Gove, soon to be sacked as education secretary, moved on to wrecking other things – 5 years is a long time in politics, but students have had to live with his legacy. This summer’s cohort have been the first required to sit the new specifications in all subjects – while schools have been faced with new performance measurements in Ebacc and Progress 8 subject combinations.

It must be said that, though quick to celebrate Gove’s 2013 climbdown, campaigners and education unions have not done very much to obstruct the new exam’s passage – devoting little campaigning time and resources. The creative and performing arts community have set up umbrella groups to try and prevent these areas of learning falling off curriculum provision in state schools, while employer organisations have criticised the over emphasis on ‘factual’ learning rather 21st century workplace skills. But there are still no real alternatives for key stage 4 (and 5) – at least none that have enjoyed popular support. What price a campaign?


Lost students

neetsLast week Education Datalab published worrying statistics on the number of school students who had been taken off roll and failed to take their GCSEs – some 22 000 more would have been eligible for post-16 study this year.

Yet while young people may finish their mainstream secondary schooling at the end of year 11, it’s now a statutory requirement to continue within education or participate in some form of work-based training until the age of 18. But other data suggests that a significant number do neither of these. DfE figures for the academic year 2016 show only 88% of 17-year olds (1 in 8) remaining in full time study with another 7.5% learning in the workplace.

In the meantime, there were over 60 000 16 and 17-year olds classified as NEET, while out of 173 00 16-17-year olds ‘not in full-time education’ during the first 3 months of 2018, 1 in 4 were recorded as unemployed and approaching 1 in 3 ‘economically inactive’ – though this should not be interpreted to assume that they were not ‘working’.

If the obligation to participate in education or training is being ignored by a small but significant minority, it’s unclear how local authorities can enforce this. Or, with young people voting with their feet,  whether they should?


Higher productivity for the many, or just the few?

John+McDonnell+sj48wV0Wj46mFor many people, increases in education provision and education performance have  contributed to a growth in economic productivity – the increased output per worker.

But it’s the level of investment in physical rather than human capital that’s more important. From the mid-20th century, for example, the ‘Fordist’ production line increased output and reduced prices, but it also deskilled many workers. More recently though, it’s been argued that as production gets more sophisticated and new technologies are introduced, the number of ‘knowledge workers’ will rapidly expand – as a result, governments have increased university participation rates. But the number of graduates has vastly exceeded the number of highly skilled, well paid jobs, with some studies estimating 40% of graduates are over qualified for the work they do.

Yet raising productivity through increasing investment, particularly in the manufacturing sectors continues to be at the centre of Labour’s agenda. This has been reiterated this week in John McDonnell’s call for the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee to be given responsibility for achieving ‘productivity’ targets. (Why a future Labour government would want to maintain the Bank’s ‘independence’ is unclear)

53747789-robotic-arms-in-a-car-plant Raising productivity in manufacturing through the introduction of robotics and artificial intelligence, though increasing output per worker will, under current conditions, inevitably continues to lead to a reduction in the size of the manufacturing workforce. This means that almost everybody is now employed in the service sector;  but increasingly the new  employment is in low skilled, low paid, ‘low productive’ jobs – thus concern grows about the increasing inequality of the ‘second machine age’ 

It’s also wrong to rely on traditional (neo-classical) economic theory and argue that increases in productivity will lead to higher wages. Even those  employed  in the high tech ‘cutting edge’ sectors receive a fraction of the extra value they create.

Giving ‘productivity’ targets such a major role also leads to other problems. An obsession with measuring productivity levels of teachers and NHS professionals has led to a regime of imposed performance targets. Advertising staff developing new techniques to encourage us to buy more of one product rather than another, do not increase the real welfare of society. While spending huge amounts of time coaching their students in exam techniques, so they can outperform other students does not have any educational value. In short, using ‘productivity’ as a barometer for social and economic progress is a minefield. We need to move on.



Stuck at the start?

thP67E0B6ULast week’s TUC report Stuck at the start provides clear evidence of the difficulties facing young workers. For example:

• 40 per cent of workers on agency contracts or in casual work are aged 16-24 and 36 per cent of workers on zero-hours contracts are aged under 25.
• Three fifths of younger workers are in poorly paid sectors like caring, sales, hotels and catering, or in elementary roles.
• 41 per cent of the young workers had to ask their family or friends for financial help due to a shortage of money.
• The average young worker is only £42 a week better off than young workers were 20 years ago. Yet the average older worker is £95 a week better off

The findings have much in common with those recently published by David Willetts and the  Resolution Foundation  Amongst other things, Resolution has called for a one-off ‘compensatory’ payment to young people while Willetts has continued to perceive the difficulties experienced by the young  as being the result of a ‘generational divide’ – and wants a new ‘contract’ between them.

The TUC does not adopt this approach, it wants better pay and conditions for all workers. But it still sees the problems faced by the young as being the result of ‘exceptional’ circumstances ‘where productivity and GDP growth are exceptionally weak’ and a time where there has been ‘exceptionally low wage growth’. These have come together in a ‘perfect storm’ and  prevented young workers from making proper and secure transitions into work without opportunities to progress

The reality is that the current generation are the first to be seriously confronted by global changes in work and employment, which, because of its more flexible labour markets, the significance of the financial crash and long-term deindustrialisation have taken place at a faster rate in the UK than in some other countries.

It’s unlikely that these changes will be easily overturned – for example, previous levels of pay and old types of job security won’t be restored just by reversing current government policies -though this would be a useful start!  In many respects it was the favourable economic conditions enjoyed by the post-war ‘baby boomer ’generations that were exceptional. A major, more radical rethink is needed.



Zero-sum education?


Post-war economists considered education a ‘public’ but also an individual ‘merit good’ benefitting both society and the individual. Indeed, like the National Health Service, education reforms were a key part of the welfare state. Educational reformers have continued to operate with these assumptions, but in other respects, education and the NHS are very different.

Devoting more resources to the NHS will improve the health of everybody, but as the 21st century unwinds, in an increasingly precarious labour market, with a shortage of secure jobs for young people, education has become a ‘positional’ or ‘zero-sum’ good with high status qualifications sought to secure a better position at the expense of others. Thus, education increasingly becomes like a tug of war or akin to running up a downwards escalator.   

Likewise schools, colleges and universities spend more and more of their resources on differentiating themselves from one another in the race to attract the best students. A teacher who spends large amount of classroom time coaching students in ‘examination technique’ to out perform those in the school down the road (and ensure their own salary progression) is not increasing the general intellect, let alone the welfare of society.

All of this has serious implications for education policy makers, not least for an incoming Labour government with a popular mandate to reduce social inequalities. Coming to power facing a very different occupational structure, Labour could no longer rely on the upward social mobility of the post-war years where, because of the expansion of managerial and professional employment, working class youth were able to move up without those in the middle class having to move down.

To achieve any significant degree of ‘equality’ Labour would have to go much further than ever before in challenging the ability of the more powerful groups in society to ensure privilege and  rites of passage to prestigious institutions (and then into the labour market) are maintained. In other words the emphasis would have to be on the redistribution of educational resources, rather than the improvement of the service in general.

Amongst other things, this would entail not only ending the existence of different types of state schools and introducing funding by social need rather than student numbers, but also restricting access to private schooling and introducing legislation to ensure that elite university admissions reflect the population at large. These types of policies would be considered well outside the boundaries of mainstream social democratic politics, although it should not be assumed they wouldn’t be popular!

But for education to really become a ‘public good’ rather than a zero-sum commodity, wider changes in the relationship between education and employment would be necessary. Young people encouraged to complete a course of study would need to be assured that it would lead to clear economic rewards, but also enhance the ability to participate in society at a more general level. This would be a tall order,  but one that cannot be avoided.

Should Labour be supporting T-levels?

The Tories are pushing ahead with T (Technical) -Levels promising they represent a major reform of secondary education. Worryingly, Labour is also backing them, mistakenly thinking they will provide real opportunities for the 50% of 17-18 year olds not going university by providing the employment skills needed for social mobility in the new 21st century economy

The low status of vocational and practical learning has been an enduring feature of English education Employers have continued to prefer recruits with academic qualifications and by enlarge, unlike in countries like Germany, where there are clear pathways into employment for those finishing vocational courses and apprenticeships, do not engage with vocational qualifications.

Many educationalists have also continued to be suspicious of academic/ vocational pathways, reminiscent of the grammar / secondary modern divisions in the 1944 Act. With even adherents worrying that the new qualifications will be rushed through without being properly developed, why will the T-levels, be any different?

In fact, there has been a move in employment away from specific occupational competence to more generic knowledge and skills. Thus, the Institute of Directors argues that ‘workers need more than technical knowledge’ and that, as more work is automated, ‘soft’ skills are necessary for collaboration and innovation using problem solving, imagination and abstract reasoning as the likely domains where humans will retain a comparative advantage over robots

Vocational and technical qualifications have also traditionally been associated with entry to ‘middle jobs’ for which, until recently, a degree was not required, and which are generally considered to be at ‘intermediate’ skill level. Yet it is now increasingly argued that many of these jobs are being ‘hollowed out’ disappearing because of increased use of automation, plus outsourcing and the fact that ‘deindustrialisation’ continues to happen more rapidly in the UK than elsewhere.

In other words, encouraging young people onto vocational courses for direct entry into jobs that may not exist even by the time courses are completed will be a major disservice to them. Arguing that vocational/technical pathways do not improve prospects for young people, does not mean that we should accept that academic learning does not need to be reformed.

Major alternatives to Michael Gove’s GCSE and A-levels are badly needed. We should argue for a ‘good general education for all’ in the upper secondary years. This would include a mandatory right to a variety of learning experiences including ‘vocational’ ones and, if properly planned and properly resourced, would finally bury the outdated and unequal ‘two-nations’ approach, at least in the state’s schools.


More on T-Levels 

Lining up one generation against another


Willetts. Minister behind tuition fees

David Willetts, once Universities minister under David Cameron, now Chair at the Resolution Foundation has  made his name arguing that the current difficulties faced by young people are the result of the excesses enjoyed by their parents – the ‘baby boomer’ generation of the post-war years.  Willetts –  as architect of the  current tuition fees scandal, played his own part in making many young people’s lives much harder.

It’s certainly true that with employment opportunities in short supply, today’s young people will be the first generation worse off than the previous and that welfare policies and the tax system are stacked in favour of older people. As everybody knows, the younger generation are also spending a record share of their income on housing, in many cases, without being able to ever afford to buy their own place. Willetts now calls for increased taxes on income and wealth, to stop budget deficits ballooning and the NHS collapsing – policies that might seem more at home in socialist programmes.

It’s true that radically different economic policies are needed, to stop young people (the group also hit hardest by the economic crash) falling even further behind. But the major problem with his analysis is that, rather than being the consequence of global changes in production and the dismantling of tradition labour markets, youth’s difficulties are the result of an ‘age war’   which by implication prevents commonality of interests across generations or any recognition of major inequalities between different groups of young people.

For example, the poorest young people are invariably those with parents who have not enjoyed the wealth and privilege that people like Willetts have, while many parents have had to provide extensive financial support, provide accommodation or look after grandchildren as their own children struggle to survive.

The young people of the 21st century should not be considered a ‘lost generation’ that need compensating for their misfortune. Those that follow them will likely experience the same difficulties and face the same challenges.