Elizabeth Truss is Conservative MP for South West Norfolk and author of Academic rigour and social mobility: how low income students are being kept out of top jobs, which was published last week by CentreForum.
The hallmark of this Government must be meritocracy; that is what will drive social mobility and power economic growth. An engine is needed to propel the next generation of young people into high quality careers, much as grammar schools opened up opportunities in the 1950s and 1960s.
To do this we should offer a “college track” through the education system specifying rigorous academic GCSEs and A-Levels in key subjects like Maths, English, languages, sciences, History and Geography. This would light a route for bright students from all backgrounds to good universities and would show how many “Russell Group Ready” students schools are producing. We will broaden entry to good universities by improving schools rather than punishing universities.
Too often those on the Right of politics avoid getting involved in the battle of ideas in education content. Many free marketers believe that supply side reforms such as academies and free schools will sort out the system and that ultimately parents and students will demand the best education. It is certainly true that accountability and freedom are vital.
However, many schools are still in the grip of a pervasive education culture that has promoted mediocrity at the expense of excellence and quantity at the expense of quality. This culture and those who resist academic excellence and rigour in teaching unions, university education departments and local authorities need to be challenged head on.
Once it was possible to obtain a basic education and expect a decent standard of living in clerical and skilled manual work. Technological change has automated many such jobs, with numbers reducing by a tenth in the past fifteen years and pay stagnating. Meanwhile professional, managerial and scientific jobs have increased by a third over the same period. The hourglass economy of expanding opportunities for the highly-skilled and a bulk of low-skilled workers with a “squeezed middle” is evident.
As these jobs reduce in number, Britain’s international competitors are strengthening core academic subjects like Maths, English, languages, sciences, History and Geography. They recognise the importance of rigorous qualifications for the emerging professional, managerial and scientific jobs. Germany, once geared up to a mass mid-skilled workforce has increased academic standards at low-ranking schools.
But in England, students are being misled by a biased education system that steers them away from the rigorous academic subjects that will net them one of these jobs. This is because league tables and UCAS points offer equal value to subjects regardless of how difficult they are or how much they are valued. Thus schools have an incentive to get students to study easier subjects.
The Government’s recent GCSE English Baccalaureate (E-BACC) showed that only 15 per cent of students had achieved A*-Cs in the core academic subjects. Often it is only grammar and independent schools that are flying the flag for rigour: for example only 10 per cent of comprehensive school pupils sit triple science GCSE (with Physics, Chemistry and Biology each constituting a whole GCSE), while 57 per cent do so in grammar schools and 33 per cent at independent schools.
A-Levels have witnessed a similar migration from core academic subjects: in 1996 60 per cent of the A-Levels entries were in these subjects, by 2010 it was 50 per cent. For example Law A-Level, which fails to make the Russell Group’s list of preferred subjects for those wanting to study a law degree, has seen the number of entries double since 1996. It is misleading that a subject called Law is not acceptable for entry to the best law courses. Mathematics A-Level, which boasts the highest economic return, saw a sharp decline post-2000 when a clutch of modular A-Levels were introduced. Though it has since recovered, the participation rate is still below that of competitor countries.
A “college track” to good universities and good jobs should start with the E-BACC of quality GCSES, where take-up should be increased by rewarding partial success. I propose this is followed with a new A-Level Baccalaureate comprising at least three academic A-Levels including an AS in Mathematics and an AS in humanities or languages. As many students now study 3.5 or 4 A-Levels, it will be possible to maintain the depth of A-Level whilst increasing the breadth. Universities need to play their part and be more explicit about what they want, and should publish the results of accepted and rejected applicants. Rather than exhorting universities to take students without the right qualifications; let’s get students studying the most valuable subjects.