Andrew Haldenby is Director of the public services think tank Reform.
Robert Halfon is a must-read columnist for this website and a Select Committee Chairman much admired for his plain speaking and independence of thought. That does not, however, absolve his attack on academic education from the charges of bad sense and political impossibility. The bigger question is whether the Conservative Party has let a vacuum emerge on the basic issue of school standards, which poor ideas like Halfon’s will naturally fill.
The Member for Harlow has the right intention: to create an education system which provides genuine opportunity to every child. He would do it by abolishing the GCSE and replacing it by a new baccalaureate which includes vocational skills and personal development. His proposal, however, would achieve the opposite of what he seeks to achieve.
The chapter and verse as to why is set out in Professor Alison Wolf’s report on vocational education for the Department for Education. Halfon might object that it was commissioned by Michael Gove, who believed unequivocally in the basic importance of academic skills and knowledge. That criticism is weak, however, because the Wolf report is based firmly on evidence, which is still relevant.
The first key finding is that people who studied vocational qualifications at ages 15 and 16 did not benefit from doing so. In the 1980s, the Government introduced national vocational qualifications (NVQs) which measured progress in one specific vocational area from age 14. Research on NVQs, however, showed that those exams offered poor or even negative returns in terms of wages. Males who studied them actually earned less than their peers who were apparently “less” qualified.
The Wolf Review further showed that one set of qualifications at age 16 mattered for earning prospects above all: English and Maths GCSE, achieved at grades A*-C. Individuals with those qualifications had a significant benefit in career progression and pay. Individuals with low literacy and numeracy were severely disadvantaged in the labour market.
Last, what Halfon is proposing is out of step with other countries, even those with vaunted vocational systems. All German schools, for example, offer a classroom-based general education to age 16. A fifth of children go on to a vocational apprenticeship which begins at 17. Up to then, they will do vocational studies as one of 13 or 14 subjects, the others being normal academic subjects such as mathematics, physics, a foreign language, history and so on.
I personally doubt whether Halfon’s ideas are politically possible. Tony Blair vetoed the Tomlinson Review in 2005, which was his generation’s Halfon moment. The French introduced a Halfon-style “technological” curriculum at ages 14-16, only to abandon it because parents and students were not willing to choose or be allocated to it. The vocational route needs work but tearing down the academic route is not the way to do it.
As Chair of the Education Select Committee and a senior backbencher, Halfon’s ideas deserve attention, wrong-headed though they are. He achieved such strong coverage, however, because he filled a gap in the market. Other members of the Conservative Party seem to have temporarily lost their voice on education reform and on schools specifically.
In his interview on ConservativeHome last week, Damian Hinds said that he would be a different Education Secretary to Gove. He would be different in style: a less “bold, vociferous and constant presence”. He would also be different in substance. Whereas Gove stood foursquare for bringing academic opportunity to every child, Hinds’s overriding aim is to reduce teacher workload. That happens to be one of the key priorities of the main teaching union (the National Education Union, formed by the merger of the National Union for Teachers and another union), along with increasing teachers’ pay.
This is a break from the Conservatives’ basic story on education reform. For the last 20 years, the Party has stood for rising pupil standards supported by effective discipline. The 2010 manifesto promised to deliver “rising standards for all pupils” and a narrower “attainment gap between the richest and the poorest”. The 2015 said that it knew what mattered in education: “rigour in the curriculum, discipline in the classroom; proper exams.” Certainly the Party recognised the importance of good teaching, hand in hand with the wider standards drive. Hinds seems to be on a different tack.
I would urge him to reconsider for a number of reasons. The first is that the fight for higher standards has not been won and should not be neglected. His own department knows this and has some good policies (as well as a strong Schools Minister, Nick Gibb). As is the way of politics, however, this work will have less force if it is not seen as the Secretary of State’s priority.
The second is that it is not the job of a Cabinet Minister to follow the agenda of the big public service unions. Sajid Javid made the same mistake as Home Secretary when he supported the Police Federation’s campaign for higher police funding. The teaching unions’ top priority is not higher pupil standards. That has to be the job for Ministers. As Tony Blair said in a valedictory article in the Economist in 2007: “Public-sector unions can’t be allowed to determine the shape of public services.”
The third is that Gove was right to arouse the opposition of the main teaching union. That union has consistently opposed any strong reform programme that expects more of teachers. It currently opposes independent inspection of schools and league tables, for example. It is studiously non-party in its opposition to change: in 1995, NUT members trapped David Blunkett in a room for 30 minutes, angry because he opposed a wave of teachers’ strikes over pay. Any political party should be confident that a standards agenda will win support from parents that far outweighs any loss of support from some teachers. Parents will also support the idea that schools should be run by headteachers rather than by officials in councils or in Whitehall.
Even faced with the demands of Brexit, some Ministers are succeeding in setting out a reform agenda. David Gauke made a very strong speech on prisons policy yesterday. Matthew Hancock wants a thorough overhaul of the NHS (although he needs more support from NHS England to do so). Hinds can certainly join them. The standards agenda is a good story to tell.