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.












Capital’s ‘reserve army’ (part 2)

UK unemployment continues to fall, it’s now at 4.4%, downloaddown from 4.9 % a year ago. Yet much more significant is the greater increase in the size of the workforce. For example, the most recent monthly ONS data shows a fall in unemployment of just under 160,000 over the year, but a 340 000 increase in those working.  The increased availability of part-time work with irregular hours continues to attract some of those previously ‘economically inactive’ – not in work, but not looking for it, the ONS figures show a 90 000 fall of people in this category, but the data also shows a 126, 000 increases in non-UK nationals from the EU working in the UK (bringing the total to 2.37 million). So, while unemployment may be the lowest since 1975, the UK labour market isn’t ‘tightening’ – a recent survey shows employers received an average of 24 applicants for unskilled vacancies and 19 for medium skilled. 

Karl Marx used the term ‘reserve army’ to describe the pool of semi-employed or unemployed workers who were the consequence of ‘overproduction’ and the rising organic composition of capital (the replacement of labour by machines).  Even if the concept might be a useful one, the nature of this modern reserve is now rather different. Rather than being part of Marx’s impoverished ‘lumpen’ workforce for example, research shows that migrant workers are likely to be overqualified (compared with UK nationals, a greater proportion have degrees) for the jobs they are recruited.

With new jobs as likely to be low-skilled as highly skilled (around 5 million people in total, reporting they are ‘over qualified’ for the jobs they currently hold) then the existence of large reserve army will severely limit increases in wages – as inflation rises, ‘real wages’ are now starting to fall again and predicted to fall further. Wages are also being dragged down by changes in employment status. The ONS data shows nearly 900,000 people on zero-hours contracts, despite a growing campaign against them, with 15% of people now declaring themselves ‘self-employed’ a category synonymous with low-pay.  



Brexit and skills shortages

Alarm bells continue to ring about the implications of (a hard) Brexit 0E29785B00000578-0-More_than_a_third_318_000_of_the_872_000_Eastern_Europeans_worki-m-5_1432072882386for UK skill levels, future growth and prosperity.  By the end of 2016 there were 2.2 million working EU migrants -7% of the labour force.  Most recently there’s been specific concern about the effect of Brexit on an already understaffed NHS. EU immigrants make up about 5% of NHS staff (10% of registered doctors and 4% of registered nurses).

Migrants from the original 14 EU member states are more likely to be in better-paid employment, requiring higher skill levels – such as the business and finance sectors. By comparison, despite significant representation in professional and managerial categories, later Eastern European migrants provide a regular supply of semi and unskilled labour. In the ‘hotels, restaurants, and accommodation’ sector they make up I in 8 of the workforce and in construction over 7%.  According to one survey, (CIPD, Facing the future 2017) 40% of EU migrants could be considered ‘over-educated’ for the work they do, compared to 15% of UK nationals (evidence shows that, overall, EU migrants tend to be more highly qualified than UK workers).

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has given Brexit a socialist tweak, telling the BBC (23/07) that the “wholesale importation” of workers from Eastern and Central Europe has been used to undermine pay and working conditions particularly in industries like construction. CIPD report that one in seven employers consider EU nationals have lower expectations about pay and conditions, but they also regarded them as more productive.

It isn’t clear however, whether wages would rise if EU migration was curtailed. According to the CIPD study, a quarter of employers reported difficulties in recruiting UK born candidates for semi-skilled and unskilled posts.  To ease shortages, employers could recruit from ‘underutilised’ groups like young people. Unemployment rates for young people are still double that generally – 1 in 8  of all 19-24 years olds are still NEET, but many UK employers have been reluctant to offer proper apprenticeships.

With new ‘flexible’ working arrangements in the 24/7 service sector, employers will also continue to recruit from groups  not wanting to work on ‘standard’ contracts because of family and caring responsibilities (over 4 million part-time women workers, don’t want or can’t do full-time employment for example) and almost a million full time students currently work part time. It’s clear that this pool of labour is not yet exhausted.

Employers could also automate. While it is difficult to replace workers with machines in many low skilled ‘non-routine’ jobs like serving in restaurants or in-home care, many other jobs could be, however the CIPD survey found little concrete evidence of any plans to do this.  Uncertainty about the post Brexit economic climate may be a factor, but the UK’s historically low rate of capital investment (compared with other countries) is probably more significant.  In other words, for key sections of UK business a low-skilled, low-pay business model is the most preferred and a hard Brexit would result in a labour shortage, as much as a skills problem. Without a migrant ‘reserve army’ many employers may not be prepared to keep businesses running at all.

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.


Unions slam the Taylor Review

Matthew Taylor’s review of employment practices has been slammed by trade union leaders and the Labour front bench for not being bold enough over zero-hours contracts and in its response to the growth of imposed self-employment. The review doesn’t call for an end to zero-hours – only for a right for those on them to be given regular hours. Instead of demanding employee status, it recommends a new category of worker, a ‘dependent contractor’ who should be given greater protection by firms like Uber and Deliveroo and paid the National Minimum Wage, though only during times of normal or high demand (!)

 Beginning his report with the claim that the success of the UK  in creating a record number of jobs since the economic downturn, has been because it has one of the most ‘flexible’ labour markets, will not have endeared Taylor to trade union activists.  A similar argument used to be made by George Osborne; as real wages tumbled and the number of low paid unskilled jobs rocketed. While Taylor concedes that real wages may have fallen, he argues that if changes to tax rates and tax credits are introduced, then average take home pay is higher than the rest of the G7.

Taylor does call for equal pay for agency staff and better sick pay for low-paid workers and he does try to address some of the contradictions associated with work in the 21st century employment however. Discussion about growing ‘flexibility’ for example, is often considered taboo in labour movement circles – being the reason for growing work place ‘insecurity’ and invariably this is true.

But as Taylor recognises, evidence shows that not all of those (including a substantial number of Uber drivers) on zero hours want fixed conditions (McDonalds have claimed, only 20% of its zero hours staff want to change their status) while ONS data regularly shows that most- part time workers don’t want to, or can’t work full time and over the last three years there’s also been an increase in the number of temporary workers not wanting a permanent job.  But while 10% of workers report they’d like to work less hours another 10% would like to work more. 

As a result, Taylor calls for a two-sided flexibility that benefits the worker as much as the employer. This would enable individuals ‘to work in a range of different ways, on hours that fit around other responsibilities’. Yet he maintains, the best way to achieve this is through ‘responsible corporate governance and good management’ rather than new national regulations.

While a Tory government is unlikely to bring in any, it must also be said that a future Labour administration, wanting to use the law to prevent the super exploitation of the gig economy, would have its hands full. It’s true that the law has been used successfully against several big players like Sports Direct, Hermes, even Uber, but these set piece court cases have taken a huge amount of time and money. While the number of employers facing legal action for not paying the minimum wage, has increased, this is only the tip of a very large iceberg.

As the job market continues to fragment, Labour would have to not only rewrite employment laws, but also replace the current bureaucratic and extremely expensive tribunal system with an alternative approach (a new type of ‘labour state’) including a fully-fledged inspectorate able to dish out on the spot fines to employers who don’t toe the line, but also ‘name and shame’ those who continue to break the law.

But a major problem for trade unions, is that they have been slow to react to structural changes in the labour market and the workplace that have been developing for over two decades and which have been left to Taylor to resolve. With some important exceptions, unions have relied on organising established ‘core’ workers, protected by collective agreements if not national conditions, rather than trying to recruit a growing, but also an increasingly fragmented and youthful ‘precariat’.

As the core workforce declines and their own membership dwindles, unions face a huge task, having to learn new ways of organising and develop new relationships and communication channels with the self-employed. It’s by organising in the workplace, not relying on courts, tribunals and employment reviews, that pay and working conditions have been safeguarded, but  it remains to be seen whether unions can be more than relics of a previous age and face up to these new challenges.


As Matthew Taylor publishes his report, its automation that’s the elephant in the room

Election discussion about the economy, employment, and skills, largely avoided any reference to the9780861043644-us-300 (4) debate about automation and its consequences for work. Even if it’s accepted that technological progress will eliminate jobs (though there are major differences of opinion about how many) it’s also generally argued  that low-paid unskilled work will be replaced by new,  more rewarding types of employment and that people should continue to be up-skilled to take advantage of these.

It’s certainly the case that previous periods of technological upheaval have not resulted in prolonged periods of mass unemployment, yet there has been a stream of accounts – admittedly mostly from the more liberal fringes of Silicon Valley – about the future implications of robotics and artificial intelligence for social cohesion, rising social inequality and much higher levels of unemployment.

The Queen’s speech  reaffirmed  government priorities “My ministers will work to ensure people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future”  but Labour has also continued to have an equally optimistic view –albeit emphasising the importance of reviving investment levels and replacing free-market forces with much greater degrees of state planning, better infrastructure, improved technical education and free university attendance.

Thirty-five years since Andre Gorz’s essay on the potential benefits of automation in the creation of ‘post-industrial’ socialism, which prioritises self-autonomous leisure rather than imposed work, Labour’s policies (whatever their other merits) continue to be based around  the importance of full (time) employment, with the ‘bad’ jobs of the Tories being replaced by Labour’s better ones. In a week that  sees the publication of Matthew Taylor’s report on employment practices, Gorz, still vilified by most of the traditional left, is at least worth  revisiting.