This year’s GCSE results have been met with (deserved) criticism over the new grading system, the changes to assessment and the emphasis that continues to be placed on ‘high status’ Ebacc subjects at the expense of others. All of these have resulted in further pressure and anxiety for the ‘exam generation’ – yet discussion about whether extensive assessment at age 16 is still necessary and if it isn’t, then what should take place instead, has been largely absent.
In the late 1980s, GCSEs established themselves as the main leaving exam, ending the division between academic GCE O-levels and non-academic CSEs. GCSEs, unlike the O-levels had much greater input from teachers (reflecting the more general influence that educational professionals still had over policy) and a much fairer method of assessment – many practitioners were pleased they drew on the pedagogy of CSE rather than the GCE. Now, forty years later, following Michael Gove’s reforms they resemble the O-level.
Critiquing the current format and trying to ’reclaim’ GCSE is essential, but it’s also important to question whether in times when the school leaving age is now effectively 18, it’s necessary for young people to jump through a set of hoops at 16. It’s true that many that students do ‘leave’ their existing schools at the end of KS4, partly reflecting the antiquated system of provision in this country, but also the increasingly selective nature of post-16 education where more and more students are not able to enter their own school sixth forms -but few 16-year olds enter the labour market or start apprenticeships.
Like the SATs, GCSEs are primarily used to rank schools and as a result, large numbers of people in the education sector have a career or business interest in maintaining the status quo. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be assessment at 16 – it’s just that that we don’t need this type.
This years A-level cohort is the first to take the new style qualifications – part of wider changes introduced by Michael Gove to make exams ‘fit for purpose’. Gove ended the AS level as a half way point to a full award and set strict limits on the amount of coursework – most subjects would be assessed by a final exam. Many educationalists considered this a step back, an attempt to re- establish the A-level as a ‘gold standard’ qualification for a smaller number of students. Many teachers complained about the way in which the reforms had been rushed through, with a lack of new text books, that options were being reduced. Many students have complained about the stress of being ‘guinea pigs’, unsure about what they should be revising and the absence of any ‘past papers’.
These fears have been unfounded. There’s been a very slight fall in the number of students that have achieved an A or A* for the new syllabuses but the overall pass rates have barely changed. Confounding critics, but under pressure to ‘perform’, schools have continued to ‘teach to test’ learning how to get their students to jump through new hoops; but the holding up of grades is also because Gove instructed qualifications watchdog Ofqual to adopt a ‘comparative outcomes’ approach based on the previous year’s performance and on student predictions. According to Gove, this would prevent ‘grade inflation’ – ending a pattern where pass rates for all levels had continued to increase. By implication it also meant that achievement levels would not fall if new ‘more demanding’ examinations were introduced – though this would not rule out changes in the relative performance of individual schools – improvements in one school’s results can only be at the expense of a fall in another’s.
As a result, the A-level continues to march on. With over 750 000 entries it’s still the main qualification for university. It’s true that about 30% of those entering HE have a vocational qualification, but to enter even a ‘middle’ ranking university a student would need to combine this with A-level grades. Entries for Applied A-levels, which evolved from the old GNVQs have slumped to a few thousand, while the planned T-levels remain on the back burner.
It’s also clear, despite the fees, the debt and attempts to talk up alternative routes, that school leavers continue to head to university in huge numbers – even before this year’s ‘clearing’, during which students are now able to ‘trade up’ if their exam results are better than expected, there has been no significant decrease in the proportion of school leavers accepting university places – the reported 2% total decline being the result in falls in adult and part-time applicants. As there are still only a handful of higher level apprenticeships they don’t represent an alternative and there is no real evidence of employers increasing the number of school leavers they recruit.
More than a year after it was supposed to, the government has finally published its response on Implementing_the_English_Baccalaureate_
Since then, Nicky Morgan has been replaced by Justine Greening and the Ebacc has been slammed by just about everybody from teacher unions to employer organisations. Though government only sought views about the implementation and delivery it has been forced to admit that many of those who did respond want major reforms or continue to oppose the qualification.
Back in 2016, the government was still insisting that Ebacc participation would be a requirement for 90% of Key Stage 4 students by 2020, but since then the participation rate has remained at under 1 in 4 and as a result, schools have prioritised their Progress 8 scores instead. The Tories now ‘aim’ for 75% by 2022, but even this would appear optimistic – with entry numbers for modern foreign language (an Ebacc requirement) going backwards.
The Department for Education now also admits the Ebacc is not suitable for some students, notably those taking vocational options in university technical colleges, studio schools and further education colleges. While it will change the way in which Ebacc participation and completion data is reported in school performance tables, it isn’t going to tell Ofsted to prioritise or set Ebacc benchmarks for inspection grading.
Published at the start of the summer holidays, this is a weak and uninspiring response from a government trying to restate its flawed manifesto commitments, but with little confidence it can provide adequate resources or recruit enough teachers to get anywhere near implementing them. Opponents now have a huge opportunity to put forward curriculum alternatives.
The Guardian (Editorial February 20th) has now joined the attack on University Technology Colleges* correctly arguing that directing ‘non-academic’ students’ onto a vocational curriculum at 14 – what it terms ‘backdoor selection’ – is wrong.
Some five years after Alison Wolf’s review had slammed many qualifications for being ‘worthless’ in the labour market, the paper likens the low status of vocational education, compared with academic learning, to the old grammar and secondary modern divide and calls for specialisation to be delayed until 16. This is now what the government intends as it seeks to rebuild what the paper describes as a ‘beleaguered’ vocational system through its Post-16 Skills Plan.
Redrawing the line of divide at 16 through the creation of a new technical route has led to alarm bells about the dilapidated state of the further education sector and the need for a major injection of funding. Nobody would dispute this, but what can be disputed is whether we need a vocational pathway at all? Employers have never taken it seriously and have continued to select recruits on performance in academic subjects, while significant numbers of young people with vocational qualifications continue to use them as alternative routes into higher education rather than to develop employment skills. With major changes in the occupational structure, particularly the collapse of ‘middling’ and technician level employment it’s even more questionable whether these sorts of qualifications are required.
Instead, surely young people need a good general education? Current academic qualifications do not provide this and it’s these that need to be reformed, rather than vocational courses. But the nature and basis of academic learning is rarely challenged, not least because most of those concerned with education policy and curriculum development have benefitted from the status and security that it has provided for them. Academics and educational professionals are very good at designing and redesigning vocational courses for other people’s children but are reluctant to visit their own back yard.
University Technology Colleges (UTCs) for 14-19 year olds, were established during Michael Gove’s period as Education Secretary but are most associated with Lord (Kenneth) Baker, the creator of the original ten subject national curriculum under Mrs Thatcher, but now a campaigner for better vocational education. Baker argued that Britain’s economic difficulties and low rates of productivity have been due to a shortage of technical skills and that it should adopt the German model of different types of schools with different types of curriculum for different types of students. This didn’t fit easily with Gove’s ‘grammar school education for all’ approach and it’s said the two had a strained relationship.
But UTCs have not been the success that Baker intended them to be, as Gove recently acknowledged in his Times column. Only 48 are open, just two more are planned for 2018, several have closed, many have experienced recruitment difficulties and a number have failed Ofsted inspections or been embroiled in financial scandals. At a time when the current Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening and outgoing Ofsted boss Michael Wilshire have called for its expansion, why is the UTC initiative running out of steam?
There are in fact many reasons why 14 rather than 11 would be a better age to transfer to a new school, particularly with the majority of young people staying in full-time education till 18, but in the absence of this and with high stakes testing remaining at 16, parents have been reluctant to allow children to transfer from a secondary school where they have become settled. It isn’t clear either how UTCs will fit with the proposed Post-16 Skills Plan where those students not following the academic route through to university will be encouraged to transfer to further education colleges at the end of Year 11.
While there may have been some justification for technical schools in the immediate post-war years –Baker argues that there were never enough of them –there is much less of a case now, as many ‘middle’ or technician level jobs have been ‘hollowed out’ and if they do continue to exist, are likely to be filled by the excess of graduates. Many employer organisations also argue that future workers need ‘generic’ and ‘soft’ skills, rather than specialised instruction for jobs that are likely to change, if not disappear completely.
There is no clear evidence that UTCs in themselves have significantly improved employment prospects –though 29% of leavers are reported to have started apprenticeships (much higher than in other types of schools) this is still very low compared to the German technical/vocational schools which the UTCs have sought to emulate, but which have a more direct link with local employment plans. Local employers may continue to sponsor UTCs but this doesn’t mean that they are directly involved with them.
In the run up to the launch of the UTC programme, Baker called for an education that encouraged pupils to ‘get their hands dirty’, but the
alternative curriculum which UTCs were supposed to offer has been restricted by Ebacc and Progress 8 requirements. As a consequence UTC education has been ‘applied’ as much as ‘practical’ and has continued to be based on GCSEs, which themselves have become more academic and more traditional. Like in other schools, those that are able to are just as likely to continue on to university. (44% are recorded as doing this, higher than in state schools generally)
As a result, in an increasingly differentiated and competitive schools market, UTCs have found it difficult to maintain a distinct brand, becoming schools that nobody really wants.
As 2016 draws to a close we are still awaiting a statement on the English Baccalaureate/ upper secondary curriculum from new Secretary of State. Justin Greening – the consultation period for Ebacc ended almost a year ago.
Nicky Morgan’s – now largely shelved –White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere reaffirmed the Cameron government’s objectives of a 90% participation rate in the Ebacc subjects, but with entry rates for Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) continuing to fall (in all other Ebacc areas they continue to rise) this has surely become unreachable? The Ebacc is not being prioritised as a performance indicator by Ofsted, leaving schools to concentrate on maximising their Progress 8 score.
Although Progress 8 is driven by Ebacc subjects, students do not have to do the complete Ebacc to maximise their scores. This explains why the provisional statistics for 2016 recorded a ‘neutral’ -0.03 overall average score for Progress 8, but only a 39.6% entry and a 24.5% pass rate for Ebacc. The Department for Education made no comment on this ambiguity. Perhaps Secretary of State Greening would rather the EBacc slide off the agenda and avoid conceding victory to the well organised and high profile Bac for the Future campaign, we should still expect an announcement of some sort though.
But as a result of the way it has been constructed – and that Key Stage 2 SATs results are being used as the baseline for value added calculations, Progress 8 cannot be considered an improvement on the Ebacc or even the lesser of two evils. Indeed the recent Kings College research on the effects of the Key Stage 4 reforms, sponsored by the NUT, reports widespread concern by teachers about its reliability and workload implications. Examination data also shows that non Ebacc subjects continue to be marginalised and that large numbers of secondary schools are beginning their GCSE programmes during Year 9.
Compared with Ebacc, there has been little, if any discussion about how to oppose Progress 8. Can it be reformed to allow a broader range of subjects to be included? Or should the main emphasis be on trying to find other value added measurements, rather than Key Stage 2 SATs?
2016 has seen the further erosion of vocational education at Key Stage 4 – the result of the Progress 8 requirements, but also Michael Gove’s qualifications cull which has prevented schools using a ‘vocational track’ at KS4 as no qualification can now be equivalent to more than one GCSE, if it is to be included in league tables -the Wolf Report also recommended no more than 20% of a student’s timetable should be spent on vocation learning.
2016 however, saw the publication of a post-16_skills_plan –even though the planned consultation appears to have been delayed. The Plan sets out proposals for new technical route into employment (the term ‘vocational’ is to be discarded) with new qualifications planned for 15 employment areas. Though not due to begin until 2019 at the earliest, the technical route will be ‘college based’.
At first sight this would appear to have significant implications for school sixth-forms which have continued to provide vocational courses as alternatives to A-levels, but most of the Business Studies, Health and Social Care and ICT ‘BTEC type’ qualifications offered by schools are now classified as ‘Applied’ and will be outside of the more occupationally specific technical track.
2016 also saw government continue to promote apprenticeships as an alternative to university for young people, the development of new ‘trailblazer’ specifications and the firming up of details for the employers levy. Yet over half of apprenticeship starts continue to be only level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and less than a quarter are by those under 19. With any guarantee of progression or even future employment, most young people that can, will continue with the academic route with the aim of progressing to university.
During 2016 a great deal of debate has taken place about 14-19 education, especially the design and suitability for particular students, but there has been little progress with developing alternatives. Neither has there been a real appreciation of the type of labour market that young people seek to enter – the implications of changes in the occupational structure for the future of many technician level qualifications for example, or that large numbers continue to end up in jobs for which they are over-qualified
If the immediate focus should be on developing curriculum alternatives, then over the longer term, because many young people are now no longer able to rely on education to ‘move on’, the real problem may be its potential loss of legitimacy.
The NUT has just released King’s College research on the effects of government policies on the secondary curriculum. Based on a sample of 1800 secondary members and in depth school case studies, key findings show amongst other things:
- 74% of teachers consider the Ebacc requirements are dramatically narrowing the curriculum.
- 84% worry that the excessive pressure of exams is taking its toll on young people’s well- being and mental health.
- Three quarters of teachers believe that the new ‘one size fits all’ GCSEs will be less suitable for low attaining students and have made the curriculum uninspiring and anachronistic.
- A general lack of confidence in ‘Progress 8’ – Government’s latest attempt to measure students’ progress and hold schools accountable for it, with widespread opposition to using unreliable KS2 SATs data as the basis for measuring progress at GCSE.
- 92% reporting their workload has increased as a result of the changes
- Increased concern about job insecurity as the non-Ebacc subjects are scaled down or become no longer available as a learning option, particularly as a result of funding cuts.