Education is a journey from primary through secondary to tertiary. Or so we may think. But perhaps it would be better to view the system the other way round.
The best of the universities are the glory of our education settlement. Seven of the world’s top 50 universities are in Britain. Three are in the best ten. Two of these, Oxford and Cambridge, top the table. No country other than the United States, which dominates the tables, performs better in that top 50. The exam system, based on GCSEs at 16 and A-levels at 18, is tailored for the university sector – enabling colleges to pick out the most promising students from the results (a function that it by and large fulfills).
Put aside for the moment claims that the sector is too large; that polytechnics and universities should never have merged; that for students to push on to the less meritorious of them makes no economic sense. For all the defensibility of these propositions, the university sector works. Debate, if you wish, the wisdom of saddling young people with large debts through tuition fees. These have not deterred a record number of students from the most disadvantaged areas from going to university.
At the heart of this academic system is the academic ideal: that study is worth undertaking for its own sake. Taxpayer funding and accountability, the needs of business, utilitarian thinking, the demands of research – all these are present and correct (up to a point), but the notion that it is civilising for people on the threshold of adulthood to join a community of scholars for a period of time dies hard. And the presumption that knowledge is its own reward reaches down deep into the school system.
It was at the heart of the Gove reforms under the Coalition. The former Education Secretary used two main levers to winch schools to roughly where he wanted them to be. The first was pressure from above: the Nick Gibb-led phonics teaching and checks, reformed GCSEs and A-levels, an overhauled OFSTED ,a new national college for teaching and leadership. The second was pressure from below through academisation, the new wave of free schools, and the nurturing of such campaigning bodies as the New Schools Network.
Now along comes Robert Halfon. The Chairman of the Education Select Committee – and our columnist – is challenging the status quo on school exclusions, itself is a Govian creation. More broadly, he proposes to stand the Coalition’s revolution on its head. Where Gove originally wanted to make GCSEs more like the old O-levels, Halfon wants to sweep both them and A-levels away altogether, introducing instead what he calls a baccalaureate at 18.
The Education Chairman offers up a pinch of incense to study for its own sake, and comes close to denying that there is an academic and vocational divide at all. But it is hard to dispute that his focus is vocational and not academic; applied, not theoretical. There is talk of the fourth industrial revolution, skills shortages, artificial intelligence, “the march of the robots”, a Royal Commission and of a new curriculum to replace one “conceived in 1904”.
On these pages, he has demanded that Oxford open up “to skills, degree apprenticeships and technical education”. The emotional pulse that powers Halfon’s beliefs has a long and distinguished history. Since the rise of the public schools and of a Prussianised Germany, through the missing technical element of the Butler reforms and the hastily jettisoned proposals of the Tomlinson report, we can hear a common chorus.
It is that the English education system went wrong on the playing fields of Eton, that the system is still preoccupied with turning out gentlemen rather than players, and that Britain lost its industrial edge precisely because of the academic-led system that the opening of this piece tried to describe. It will be objected that the picture it painted is false, anyway: for most pupils, even now, education is not a journey from primary to tertiary. It ends at sixteen.
The Government wants to address the vocational side through T-levels and new colleges. Critics will argue that this is yet more alphabet soup, and maybe laud Halfon’s more radical programme instead. Our purpose today is not to argue the toss about whether his approach is right or wrong. Rather, it is mull its narrower significance. Who else in the Conservative Party is pushing a post-Brexit education programme that catches the eye? Would it be right to U-turn on the Gove revolution? Which way – as Nick Boles used to put it – is up?
It is self-evident that Brexit, or rather the Government’s handling of it, is sucking the life out of debate elsewhere. But the absence of discussion within the Party about the future of education is striking. One has come to expect a certain timidity about health policy, perhaps understandably given the electoral risks. None the less, there is no history of Labour owning the education half of that odd, inseparable couple, schools-and-hospitals. The quiet is uncanny.
In an interview with Andrew Gimson on this site last week, Damian Hinds said that the post he holds sometimes requires “a bold and vociferous and constant presence, at other times less so”. This read as an admission that he sees himself as a consolidator rather than a trailblazer: a healer rather than a warrior, as Patrick Cosgrave used to put it. And it is perhaps inevitable that the role of an Education Secretary in a government with no majority will be incremental – tweaking away at the teacher workload, T-levels and character education.
But this pause for breath leaves questions for the future. Should education reform indeed be fixed on incrementally improving early provision and technical education – on some of the most visible gaps in the system? Or should the Gove system be recharged, with faster academisation and more backing for free schools? What has happened to the Theresa May Mark One vision, powered by Nick Timothy, of more grammar schools, and some universities compelled, in effect, to become technical colleges?
Or instead should Halfon’s ideas gain free rein, with a Royal Commission to look at overhauling the exam system, and presumably the University settlement too, from top to bottom? What about further education? Where do adult and refresher courses fit in? How can teachers and schools cope with supplementing the role of parents and homes? Above all, what is education for, anyway? Is the academic ideal at its core, and to be honoured and preserved, or simply outdated – a vanity to be hurled on the bonfire?
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that ConservativeHome will be running a mini-series on reform tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday. Brexit will be robbed of purpose if politicians and parties have no idea what to do with it when it happens.