A new issue of Forum


A new issue of Forum has just been published. It contains a series of articles about Labour’s plans for a National Education Service. It goes without saying that in general  Labour’s policy should be welcomed, but some of its post-16 proposals are more problematic. In one of the contributions, Patrick Ainley and myself explain why we don’t need another attempt at constructing a ‘vocational alternative’ to academic qualifications and why Labour are wrong to back the Tories T-Levels. Instead, we need a good ‘general education’ for everybody.


Unless you are a subscriber you’ll have to purchase the articles, but there have been previous posts on this site that summarise our argument.




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?

GCSE – do we really need it?

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.

A-level. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This years A-level cohort is untitledthe 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.












The Bac is back (or is it?)

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.


A good general education for everybody

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.


Schools that nobody really wants?

University Technology Colleges (UTCs) for 14-19 year olds, were established during Michael thGove’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.