With A-level results announced earlier in the day, UCAS reported 409 000 successful university placements – up 3% against A level results day in 2014 and including 362,000 students accepted to their first choice. The 5% increase in 18 year olds and a 2% growth in those 19 has been at the expense of older students. There’s also been a fall in those registering as part-time students. These increases have been helped by the removal of the admissions cap as universities increasingly chase students, but they also confirm that, despite the fees and despite new plans to axe maintenance grants for the less well off, what used to referred to as the ‘academic route’ is, at least in the eyes of young people, increasingly the only route that provides at least some security in a world of precarious employment and the ‘graduatisation’ of even routine jobs.
Yet within minutes of A-level results being announced, Schools Minister Nick Gibb went on television reminding young people that the government had also provided apprenticeships as alternative to university, that two million have been created since 2010 and another three million are promised by 2020. Because apprenticeships are considered a good thing across the political spectrum, supported by both business leaders and trade unions as ways of rebalancing the economy, restoring the importance of manufacturing, maybe even returning to ‘how things used to be’?
Current problems with apprenticeships continue to be glossed over by most though. First of all, a school leaver with A-levels is going to find it hard to find a Higher Level Apprenticeship – a qualification that is equivalent to at least the early years of a degree – and might also include some university attendance. Data from the Skills Funding Agency (part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) shows just 12,300 starts between August 2014 and April 2015. While this is more than 25% up on previous periods, only 700 have been by those under 19. There are more Advanced Level Apprenticeships, but during 2013/14, less than a third, just 35,600 were under 19. Small fry compared to the 250 000 plus who enrol for A-level. Many young people who do start apprenticeships also have academic qualifications that are at least equivalent to the apprenticeship level at which they start and so are not progressing. The majority of apprenticeships are still only at intermediate Level (equivalent to the GCSEs the majority of school leavers already have) last for 12 months and generally don’t offer automatic progression to an Advanced scheme.
Despite government promises, a lot needs to be done before young people really have a choice between the academic and the apprenticeship route.
Cridland has called for GCSE to be abolished within 5 years ‘High-stakes exams at 16 are from a bygone era’ and, in a further swipe at the Gove/Morgan examination reforms, for the status of vocational learning to be upgraded. ‘For too long, we’ve just ‘pretended’ to have a multiple route education system. Yet in reality there has been only one path the system values – GCSEs, A-levels, University.’
Cridland’s comments put him closer to Labour’s Tristram Hunt and his Tech-Bacc, but also to Tory, Lord (Kenneth) Baker, the instigator of University Technical Colleges. Cridland also calls for a more flexible ‘personalised’ curriculum allowing academic and vocational study to be mixed and which would provide ‘Great teachers in classrooms with the freedom to deliver great, innovative teaching harnessing new approaches and technologies’. He also wants much better careers advice, closer links between employers and schools and the restoration of the careers service.
The GCSE used to be considered the ‘teachers exam’ because of its emphasis on coursework and because it was available to all. Those days are long since gone and as a result, many would support Cridland’s calls for abolition. Yet on the other hand, there is no reason why some form of assessment at 16 shouldn’t continue, but within a much broader baccalaureate framework providing the main certification at 18.
Cridland’s proposals for vocational education are less clear and much weaker. On the one hand he wants to include more work experience and like many others in the UK, including Baker and Labour’s Lord Adonis, looks to Germany for inspiration. At the same time he wants vocational courses to also have the ‘gold standard’ A-level label – even though the most successful vocational course so far, the GNVQ was reinvented as a vocational A-level in Labour’s Curriculum 2000 reforms, but failed to establish itself as entries dropped to a few thousand.
The main problem with Cridland’s approach and that of Baker and Hunt for that matter is it’s refusal to be critical of ‘academic’ education in itself – only to say that it’s not suitable for everybody. Thus. ‘For many – including me, and most Ministers – that path was the right one. But for many others, it’s not’. Isn’t this just another way of saying that ‘vocational qualifications are all right for other people’s children…’ ?
A serious analysis of qualifications has to consider the part played by what sociologists call ‘powerful knowledge’. Labour governments have been trying to improve the status of vocational qualifications for years but haven’t succeeded. Powerful (academic) knowledge has long been upheld by elite universities –where few if any ‘vocational’ students are ever admitted. It’s powerful knowledge, not it’s vocational or practical content that secures jobs in the City or leading roles in business.
Not surprisingly this isn’t addressed by Cridland, (MA, History, Christ’s College Cambridge) yet until it is, differences in status between different types of knowledge will also continue. We could make a start by calling for a general diploma with a mandatory core of academic and vocational study, in otherwords, without different routes or ‘pathways’ and then campaigning for it to be the main entrance qualification across higher education.
Better careers advice should also be encouraged, but has to be in the context of expanding job opportunities themselves. The problem for most young people isn’t that they make the wrong choices –but that there are little in the way of alternatives. In an economy becoming ever more sharply divided into ‘lovely’ and ‘lousy’ jobs and where people are as likely to be overqualified than lacking skills, there’s no real evidence, at least not yet, that doing an apprenticeship, that’s if you are lucky to get one, will ever allow you to earn anywhere near as much as if you have even a reasonable degree.
The countries where the differences between academic and vocational learning are smallest, are invariably countries where the level of inequality has always been lower and where vocational and technical education has traditionally been part of a defined route into employment. Cridland’s proposals should be welcomed by educational reformers, but they still leave as many questions as answers.
Last week’s secondary school league tables began to bed down the first of Michael Gove’s examination changes for 14-19. The 2014 tables excluded performances in resits or in BTEC style vocational qualifications –and gave further prominence to English Baccalaureate subjects. As a result many schools found that though their overall performance in exams had improved, they’d slid down the league and more are ‘failing’. By 2016 the tables will be rank schools according to the ‘eight’. This will be performance in the EB plus three other subjects deemed sufficiently ‘rigorous’ (read ‘academic’ with end of course written examinations).
Much of the media attention given to this year’s tables however has been hogged by the top private schools –largely because they’ve continued to do the old ‘unregulated’ syllabuses for International GCSEs (IGCSE). No longer allowed in tables, many privates are now also failing http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-31023685
The tables have not been designed to regulate these schools however, but to impose a ‘grammar school’ curriculum across the state sector and more importantly to create new categories of failure and of course, the option of imposing further sanctions on those that don’t make the grade.
With the current Secretary of State Nicky Morgan now promising new ‘11 plus’ requirements if the Tories are re-elected, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-31079515we’re moving even further to an education system based on regimentation and social control rather than encouraging innovation and social aspiration. This is appropriate for a society where social mobility has gone in to reverse and high rates of youth unemployment have become the norm.
Radicaled has posted critiques of Labour’s polices for 14-19 year olds to emphasise the continuity with those of Lord (Kenneth) Baker, whose support for a strong academic –vocational separation and in particular, for University Technology Colleges (UTCs) offering employment specialisms, led to Tory tensions with Gove’s ‘grammar school education for all’ approach.
The new common exam, reflected the growth of comprehensive schools, many being given the go ahead by Thatcher herself, while a dual system of CSE and GCE O-level examinations, the former still acting primarily as a ‘leaving’ certificate for ‘non-academic’ young people was also becoming increasingly inappropriate, as staying on rates continued to increase. In addition many schools were able to ensure that their students were being awarded CSE grade 1 (O-level equivalent). Despite this however, the papers report Prime Minister Thatcher’s concern that GCSE would result in too high levels of exam success, reflecting the extent to which New Right thinking was already starting to sweep through the education system.
GCSE, possibly because it was so new, was able to survive the Education Reform Act, although tiering was quickly introduced. It wasn’t until over 25 years later that Michael Gove launched a full-frontal attack on the qualification, unsuccessfully seeking to replace it with new E-bacc certificates, but then abolishing most of its progressive features and in so doing so, making it look more like the old O-level, as well as being harder to pass.
Meanwhile last week, CBI director general John Cridland called for peak level assessment to be delayed till 18 and rather than GCSE, for more individually tailored learning from 14 and for young people to mix and match academic and vocational learning ‘depending on what’s right for them’ http://news.cbi.org.uk/news/new-year-message-for-2015/
It does seem ridiculous that with the raising of the participation age to 18, GCSE continues to dominate the secondary curriculum. Practitioners and teacher unions must not let organisations like the CBI set the tone of this debate however
Maths and further maths have been put back a year to 2017, while chemistry and English literature syllabuses, due to be taught from 2105 have yet to be given the green-light by Ofqual. With continued doubts about the new GCSEs also due to begin in 2015 , Michael Gove’s draconian examinations remain precarious even if Nicky Morgan appears to have been instructed to rubber stamp them.
Telling members that schools and colleges were ‘magnificently rising to the challenge’ Morgan received a grilling at the Parliamentary Sub-Committee earlier this month on the timing, but also about the design of the new qualifications.
While schools and colleges, even private sector headteachers, continue to be concerned about the pressures on schools in implementing another new set of changes, it’s vital that campaigners, practitioners and teacher unions continue to question and campaign against the archaic educational principles behind the reforms, which as Radicaled has continued to argue, are designed to halt rising success rates as labour market opportunities for young people continue to decline.
Another year of university ‘clearing’ swings into gear; but it now takes a very different form compared to when originally established to help those who had missed out on their grades having a second opportunity to gain a place elsewhere. Despite tuition fee hikes and Coalition members continuing to ‘talk up’ failing apprenticeships as an alternative to university, there’s no evidence that students are shunning Higher Education – disadvantaged young people even less so (www.theguardian.com/education/2014/aug/13/university-tuition-fee-rise-poorer-students).
With universities now able to recruit an unlimited number of students with ABB grades and with those who achieve higher grades than are expected able to ‘trade up’ the Financial Times (09/08/14) likened the process to a “football transfer window” as leading universities use everything from free laptops to cash incentives to lure away those who’ve already been accepted elsewhere (www.ft.com/cms/s/0/da265744-1f04-11e4-9d7d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3A41RHXDo). As the FT indicates, it’s clear that more institutions have been using the Oxbridge style ‘unconditional offer’ to make sure that they are not left empty handed.
This is only half of the story however. If an additional 30,000 places have been funded to allow the recruitment of high performers, this year’s A-level results mean that competition for students will be intensified further and universities are likely to have to admit many who have failed to gain the grades required in their original offer. Despite a 0.6% increase in the new A*grade (as teachers found out what was required to reach it), the percentage of A and B grades are down slightly as is the overall pass rate. A fall in the number of 18 year olds also reduces the size of the pool the universities are fishing in.
Changes to examinations by Michael Gove and supported by new Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, are also affecting the supply of applicants. The ending of the January sitting limits retake opportunities and reductions in coursework are said to favour boys. Ofqual has been instructed to apply a ‘comparative outcomes’ approach, designed to limit ‘grade inflation’ while the proportion of entries for the more traditional ‘facilitating’ subjects favoured by Russell universities have also increased.
In the post-crash economy however, the increase in both the number of university places available and the number of ‘first choice’ acceptances will not be ‘an important source of social mobility’, as Universities Minister Greg Clark claims. Instead, the number of young people finding themselves ‘overqualified and underemployed’ will continue to grow as Office for National Statistics figures just released show continued falls in levels of pay and the number of new jobs being created in low skill/ low paid sectors vastly outnumbering better paid/ higher skilled opportunities. Around a million jobs may have been created in the last 12 months but less than 1 in 5 can be classified as ‘professional, scientific or technical’. (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lms/labour-market-statistics/august-2014/statistical-bulletin.html) This can only strengthen arguments that changes to the education system, in the interests of young people rather than market forces, must be part of more general changes to the labour market and economy if they are to be effective.