CORE BUSINESS – KEEPING UP ACADEMIC STANDARDS
New report condemns poverty of expectation and champions core Academic subjects
Michael Gove, the shadow Education Secretary, claimed at the launch, last week, of a new Reform report ‘Core Business’ that raising school standards was no longer the key priority of the Government and that Ed Balls priorities lie elsewhere.
Teachers are now forced to focus on implementing initiatives that are not key to raising education standards, becoming little more than agents of Government policy, which affords scant respect for their professional abilities. Gove suggested that raising education standards is key to addressing many of the social and welfare challenges teachers are being asked increasingly to deal with in schools. Educated pupils after all take fewer risks and make more informed choices.
At the launch Gove agreed with Reforms assessment that UK policy makers have bought into a capability myth that a large proportion of the population aren’t suited to academic study, a prejudice that simply does not exist in the UK’s competitor countries. The result has been 25 years of policy making designed to funnel students away from academic study and into more vocational routes.
This is more conspiracy than cock-up. League tables and the drive towards equivalence and “parity of esteem” now actively incentivise pupils towards less academic study. Tellingly seventy percent of Teach First’s elite graduates, working in schools, feel that their school encouraged pupils to choose courses that would benefit the school, not the pupil. Gove said that he would not accept low expectations for disadvantaged children. Deprivation does not equal destiny. The Harris Academies show what can be achieved in disadvantaged communities by good teaching in autonomous schools. The report calls for all pupils to study a core of five academic GCSEs and for standards to be raised to international standards. England has one of the narrowest academic cores in the OECD. The English examination system does not formally require students to sit any examinations at the age of 16, however in practice most students are compelled to take one GCSE in each of English and Maths because of league table measures. Of the ten leading developed countries England is just one of two that sets such narrow academic requirements for its young people. Across the world countries from Japan to Germany to Canada have been moving to strengthen their academic core, recognising the values of a broad academic education. We are doing the opposite, says Reform.
Indeed, many of the academic examinations taken by English students are of a much lower quality than their international counterparts. Reform asked leading academics to compare examinations from Japan, Canada, France, Germany and the USA with the UK’s in maths, English and science. They found that whilst English was of a comparable standard, England’s maths and science exams suffer from a “clear aversion to academic rigour”, showing a “noticeable intellectual deficiency” compared to other countries. This trend towards less academic study is damaging for both the individuals and society. Academic qualifications benefit individuals with GCSEs adding 15 per cent to average earnings whereas vocational qualifications can actually reduce earnings by up to 0.2 per cent. They also improve general economic growth by enabling people to move between occupations and avoiding occupational segregation. Reducing academic study is restrictive too, to social mobility. Only 0.2 per cent of individuals progress from non-academic routes into higher education. The report recommends first, that all students should study a core of five academic GCSEs in order to ensure that they get the best possible academic grounding until at least 16. It suggests English and Maths, plus three from the sciences, languages history and geography. Secondly, to give rigour back to our qualifications, it recommends that University academics and school heads of department must take control of GCSE standards from Ofqual and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA).
Finally, the Government should stop asserting false equivalence between academic and vocational qualifications and league tables should properly reflect how many pupils are meeting the core academic requirement.
Footnote. A senior Cambridge academic pointed out, at the launch, that while they are doing their best to improve access to Cambridge, from the state sector, the poor levels of literacy, numeracy and what she termed “ articulacy” revealed by applicants made it very difficult indeed for admissions tutors to have a clear idea of individuals potential. Lord Mandelson recently said that universities should pay greater attention to individuals potential than their A levels.