"The very best means of helping all realise their potential – of making opportunity more equal – is guaranteeing the best possible education for as many as possible.”
So said Michael Gove to the RSA in June, and few would argue with him. But what is the best possible education?
The last 25 years have witnessed successive governments give the same answer: taking a growing number of children out of academic study altogether. Since the introduction of the GCSE and NVQ (by a Conservative Government), the development of the British education system has been based on the assumption that an academic education should be the preserve of the few. Policymakers have determined that from the age of 14 students should be separated into those who can and those who can’t.
This “capability myth” has seeped into every aspect of education policy. Successive governments have introduced vocational qualifications for 14-16 year olds which are both “equivalent” and share a “parity of esteem” with academic qualifications. The result has been a resounding failure, with qualification after qualification being introduced only to be withdrawn after employers and students realise that they are in no way a substitute for academic study. This inconvenient truth has not prevented Ministers from weighting the system in favour of vocational qualifications, quantifying their value above that of GCSEs in school league tables.
This Government has continued the con trick played on generations of students pushed into vocational routes. The Diploma, which conflates academic and vocational learning, has further exacerbated the problem by delivering neither effectively and undermining rigorous academic study.
In Reform’s report Core business published today, new analysis by leading academics shows that GCSEs – particularly in maths and science – are “intellectually deficient” compared to their international counterparts. This will perhaps come as no surprise to those who follow the movements of the private education sector. Why else would independent schools be moving in their droves to offer rigorous, well-respected qualifications like the International GCSE?
Segregating children into those who “can” and those who “cannot” helps no-one. The simple fact is that academic study matters, not just for the select few but for all, both individually and for the country. Those with GCSEs earn 15 per cent more than those without. And academic qualifications are essential to improve social mobility; Alan Milburn’s recent report found that only 0.2 per cent of individuals progress from non-academic routes into higher education.
The real divide is not between the “cans” and “cannots” but between the “haves” and “have nots” – those children who receive a decent academic education, and those who are deprived of that opportunity by schools that have no choice but to play the system. 70 per cent of elite graduates on the Government’s Teach First programme believe that schools encourage pupils to choose qualifications that will benefit the school’s league table ranking over the pupil’s long term future.
England is unique in having a national obsession with the idea that some children just aren’t “suited” to academic study. Across the developed world there is a clear understanding that all students will study for academic qualifications throughout compulsory education.
The Conservatives have appointed Sir Richard Sykes to lead a review considering the future of qualifications. If he shares Michael Gove’s vision of the best possible education, he must make two central recommendations for 14-16 education.
Firstly, all students should be required to study a minimum of five academic GCSEs. Vocational study should become an addition to rather than a replacement for academic study at this age, and school league tables must be reformed to reflect attainment in this academic core. The incentive for schools to deny their pupils academic education must be removed.
Secondly, it must be recognised that the English educational bureaucracy is the problem, not the solution. Organisations such as the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, which sets the curriculum, have explicitly focused on widening participation at the expense of rigorous academics. In order to return GCSEs to a top-tier international level, responsibility for setting standards should be given to university academics working with school heads of department. The “have nots” deserve nothing less.