I am a believer in the “and” theory of education. It is possible and desirable to give secondary students both academic and vocational education; students should not have to make an “either” choice at 14. Most leading developed countries are already of this school of thought. Germany, which previously had an either/or system and produced a large mid-skilled workforce has had a major rethink. Driven by concern over low rankings in reading, mathematics and science in the 2000 OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) table, Germany increased the academic requirements for technical schools and apprenticeships. The country realised that they had been failing to educate the workforce for the modern economy the country faced, where automation is reducing the number of skilled trades and clerical jobs available. Technical jobs now require a much greater degree of academic training.
This is a global trend. Virtually all leading developed countries insist on a core of academic examinable subjects until 16, such as history, modern foreign languages and sciences. Many require English (or equivalent) and mathematics until 18. In this respect England is an outlier. A lower proportion of Britain’s 16-18 year olds study mathematics than any of our leading competitors.
Britain is now in a similar position to Germany in 2000. As a country we have fallen in the league table to 28th for mathematics, 16th for science and 25th for reading, from much higher positions only a few years ago. Under Labour we witnessed the numbers taking a modern foreign language at GCSE falling from 79 per cent in 2000 to 44 per cent in 2009. Britain has an appalling skills record (according to the CBI 40 per cent of the population only have basic skills, compared to 34 per cent in the US, 28 per cent in France and 22 per cent in Germany) and is being held back by a tail of low achievement.
That is why I believe the Government’s proposals on the English baccalaureate (EBACC) and the curriculum are the most important element of our education policy. This gives long overdue recognition to studying key subjects – humanities, science and foreign languages and strengthening the rigour of the subjects. They are also the most popular (with an 69 per cent approval rating against 11 percent disapproval in a recent Sunday Times/YouGov poll), because the British public recognise what Labour don’t, that an increase in rigour and standards and more people obtaining credible qualifications is vital for the future of Britain. I have had many e-mails from constituents asking how their sons and daughters can obtain the EBACC.
Yet there is certainly no risk of a cross party consensus with Labour complaining that any attempt to extent academic disciplines to more British children is “elitist” or “demeaning vocational qualifications”. According to Shadow Schools Secretary Andy Burnham there is no “evidence” that the EBACC is an important step forward for British education. Over their years in office they let young people down with the botched introduction of the diploma. Diplomas have been criticised by universities as lacking academic rigour, determined as unsuitable for science by the Royal Society and considered a distraction by employers who believe GCSEs and A Levels should remain the “cornerstone of education system.” Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been wasted on a failed approach.
That is why Schools Minister Nick Gibb’s response in Education Questions on the 7th February that academic subjects will be taught with vocational subjects at the new University Technical Colleges was so important. He said:
“The English baccalaureate is designed to leave ample time in the curriculum for other subjects, including vocational subjects. In the countries around the world that have the best technical education systems, core academic subjects are taught alongside, not instead of, technical or vocational subjects until their students reach the age of 15 or 16. Subjects such as modern languages are critical for the technical and vocational success of young people.”
Nick Gibb has been a dogged promoter of education standards for years and is absolutely right about this critical point.
The Government should be on the front foot about this flagship element of our education policy; all students should have the opportunity to study the English Baccalaureate, including students at University Technical Colleges. This will help the students of today ensure higher future earnings on leaving school and will improve their chances of obtaining a high quality apprenticeship or university place. By doing this we will be able to compete in the international economy. And we should be challenging Labour on their anti-aspiration stance that has peddled the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in British schools for so long.