John Blake is Head of Education and Social Reform at Policy Exchange, before which he was a state-school history teacher for ten years.
This week and next a significant part of the reform agenda pushed by the Conservative-led coalition government shows its first fruit. Thirteen A-level subjects, including English, history and physics, have been reformed with assistance from university academics to be better preparation for higher education (more subjects will follow next year, and then a final tranche in 2019). Results for these, and the non-reformed A-levels, were published on Thursday.
Next Thursday, all of England’s 16-year-olds will collect their GCSE results, and although fewer of these subjects have been reformed, the three that have will have been sat by nigh-on everyone: English language, English literature and mathematics. The changes to the GCSE are also more substantial. Although A-levels have been made more rigorous, this was accomplished by modest changes to content and phrasing questions differently to encourage more sophisticated thinking. For the GCSEs, the expanded content is explicitly more demanding, and the standard schools are expected to get their students to higher.
We clearly cannot know the full impact of the GCSE changes yet, but the relative smoothness of the shift to the new A-level system – relative to, say, the introduction of Curriculum 2000, the last big A-level shake-up, which got the head of the qualifications watchdog sacked and contributed to the downfall of the Secretary of State—suggests there will not be massive logistical problems. The specific outcomes will also be worth investigating, not least the apparent fall in student studying music and drama.
Perhaps of wider interest is the extent to which such an ambitious education reform agenda of comprehensive and coherent change to the whole education system, could emerge again from the contemporary Conservative Party.
The Tory Party has a very strong record of reform in education. This is not just in years, but also during the 1980s when Kenneth Baker introduced the first statutory national curriculum, and Sir Keith Joseph aligned the old O-level and CSE into the GCSE. Even before that, the whole pattern of post-war schooling was set in the 1944 Butler Act, named for the Conservative minister who steered it and its tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical colleges through the House of Commons (whilst also negotiating a compromise with the Church of England and Roman Catholic faith schools, no small feat on its own).
Although the loudest voices demanding the deconstruction of that system from the late 1950s onward were Labour, many Conservative local authorities went comprehensive for practical reasons of school organisational and cost, unprompted by policy guidance from Labour’s Tony Crosland.
Where in the modern Conservative Party are the equivalents of these grand projects of educational change? The 2017 manifesto suggested substantial work was to be done in this area, with universities, independent schools and existing grammar schools to be called to task for doing too little to help improve the wider school system. Much of that ardour appears cooled in the wake of the unexpected election result, but it is no less urgent than it was five months ago.
There remain too many places in England where parents have no real choice over the quality of schooling for their children. The just-about-managing classes who were the talk of politics mere weeks ago neither want nor can they afford private school. Their willingness to keep faith with the state system they pay taxes for is not being met with sufficient dynamism to ensure that the improvements in quality of education in London are being extended beyond the metropolis. It is little good telling people we have established some amazing schools in Brent when you live in Basingstoke (only one Outstanding school in the whole town) or Barrow-in-Furness (no Outstanding schools).
There is some evidence the Government recognises the need for better vocational and technical education, and this is to be applauded. Reforming A-levels to be a better preperation for university study is a positive development. Yet there are students today who are facing a choice between a three year residential university education they do not really want and doing nothing at all, given the inadequate work-based alternatives. Degree apprenticeships offer some promise, and the Apprenticeship Levy has generated more discussion about in-work training than anything else I can recall.
This is welcome, but better post-18 options will only work if we truly deliver on the promise of reformed curriculum and teaching in primary and secondary schools to ensure young people emerge from compulsory schooling literate, numerate and culturally aware.
Developing on the Conservative manifesto’s promise of a “curriculum fund” to provide better curriculum materials and training to teaching staff is essential, as is ensuring that the free schools programme continues to generate innovative institutions such as Michaela Community School, West London Free School, and the Boxing Academy, capable of disrupting stale ways of working and enhancing the educational debate with practical new ideas.
This summer’s result season marks the culmination of a long history of necessary reform made by Conservative secretaries of state. What is now needed is to generate the ideas for the next wave of reform, focusing on the need to improve vocational training for people who are not going to university.