Alison Wolf’s second report on education for 16 to 19 year olds reminds us that there is no part of the education service that does not need reform after the errors of the past 50 years. Most of the blame is Labour’s – it created the secondary modern comprehensive, strong-armed progressive education and mixed ability teaching throughout the system, and debased examinations to promote equality. The thoughts of their leadership contenders in The Guardian over recent weeks show that they have learned nothing. Tristram Hunt – still their education spokesman – realises the state they’re in, but has no idea of what to do about it.
A good deal of the blame, though, is ours. The Plowden and Newsam reports of the sixties were commissioned by Conservative governments, the first attempt at a national curriculum and national tests was botched, and the system of payment by results in further education created a perverse incentive to make the figures look right, irrespective of the quality of the work.
As Baroness Wolf’s shows, Further Education is in deep crisis, and the apprenticeship issue – too much low level work, exploitation by employers to create fake apprenticeships and free training – is only part of it. We do not have a clear idea of what this service is expected to deliver, and to whom. Across the country, we have a confused and often duplicated system of sixth forms sixth form colleges and FE colleges, some much more successful than others, and dominated, particularly in FE colleges, by overpaid managers and underpaid lecturers, to the detriment of the expertise actually delivered to the students.
Comprehensive school sixth forms are a particular weakness. Few schools have staff who can deliver the full range of academic subjects to A level, and yet, from the seventies onwards, almost all have fought desperately to avoid transferring sixth form teaching to sixth form colleges. The sixth form college may well be the only institution capable of providing the teaching needed to make the new A level system work. It should be developed rather than cut back, and FE colleges used to develop the high level technical skills recommended by Baroness Wolf, alongside the work that is still needed to equip all young people with the literacy and numeracy skills they should have learned in school.
Ofsted has not recovered from the damage inflicted on it by Labour and Sir David Bell in 2005. Sir Michael Wilshaw told The Sunday Times at the weekend that a quarter of state secondary school heads were not good enough, and yet inspection evidence does not reflect this, as it did not detect the Trojan horse situation before the scandal broke. The reason, plain to everyone without a vested interest, is that inspection is now based far too much on data, and that the data are corrupt. At each stage, a school or institution has a perverse incentive to make its starting point look a little lower than it should be, and its outcome a little better.
Teachers are pressured by senior management to massage internal data and results, and this situation will not improve until we have properly conducted external assessments. A neighbour told me at the weekend that her daughter had passed GCSE languages examinations by learning by heart and reciting a series of phrases written by her teacher. She had not understood a thing and had dropped languages altogether. A relative taking a course grandly titled “forensic science” completed his coursework by downloading links provided by his teacher and not altering a word. So did the whole class, and the examining board did not pick it up. Such stories are legion across the country, and the worst example I heard of – a teacher completing all of his A level students’ coursework himself – was from a leading public school.
The finagling is so widespread that it renders every judgement by Ofsted suspect – from failing via coasting to outstanding – unless it can be confirmed by first hand observation of pupils’ work. The sooner the new regime of examination can be brought in, the better. In the meantime, cheats are prospering, and we need better safeguards against rough justice – in Ofsted’s treatment of inspectors as well as schools.