I’m a guarded fan of the think tank ‘Reform’. They’re of a centre right-ish bent and their mission is to apply their philosophy to radical constructive reform of public services. In the main I consider myself ‘on their side’. Therefore, it was disappointing when I came across this report containing their latest thinking on education. To save you reading the gist is that every pupil in the UK should have to sit ‘5 rigorous academic GCSEs’. Anything else apparently sells students short. They charge opponents who say not everyone is academically minded as party to what they call ‘the capability myth’. They’re convinced if taught properly everyone has it within themselves to pass 5 ‘academic’ GCSEs and that is what the nation should aspire too.
The sound-bite from the piece is that “capability myth” bit. It is quite a cutting phrase to throw back at anyone who disagrees with them – as if the opponent is party to a grand conspiracy to hold kids back. I’m sure they were chuffed to bits when they coined it because it sounds so withering. But I don’t buy it.
Let me throw a phrase back at them – they are peddling the ‘aptitude myth’. Their approach denies that some people flourish outside an academic environment and are crushed within one. They condemn these people to a childhood of being convinced they’re ‘thick’ and doomed to fail in society. They will drive these kids to truancy and the one chance to get these kids a good outcome (the school years) is wasted.
The interesting thing is that the research and observations they make in the report are bang on the money. It is just the conclusions they then draw that are wide of the mark. It is certainly true that the old benchmark target of 5 GCSE’s in any subject encouraged schools to put kids into lessons that were less academic. Vocational qualifications with an equivalence of 5 GCSEs for the purpose of targets proliferated. As Chair of Governors of a School condemned with the National Challenge label this is something I witnessed firsthand and arguably condoned. In just two years we lifted the students getting 5 GCSE’s (or equivalent) from 18% to 64%. Some of this improvement was down to better discipline in the school and some to better teaching. Some of this improvement was also down to putting kids into classes aligned with their aptitude and ambition. It is predictable and cheap to represent this as ‘dumbing down’. These kids are not kids who wanted to go to University. Now, we could have a whole separate debate on if the fact they don’t aspire to go to uni in itself is a failure – however, they at least now have qualifications that will get them into further education where their vocational experience serves them well. They are less likely to end up as the NEET type that Labour obsesses about (youngsters not in education, employment or training) than they would have been.
The year we made this progress the school league table benchmark was changed. It became 5 GCSEs including both English and Maths. To my mind, even though the change meant that ‘my’ school didn’t shoot up the tables as we would have, the new benchmark is spot on. Maths and English are core building block skills regardless of what you wish to do, and the level set for a C grade at GCSE is the level you would like to think every adult could or should attain. The same ‘core building block’ argument cannot be said of history, geography or even the sciences that presumably Reform are lumping in the ‘academically rigorous GCSE category. These subjects are undoubtedly ‘nice-to-have’, possibly even ‘great-to-have’ but they are not ‘must-have’.
If we can get kids out of secondary school with 5 GCSEs including English and maths we WILL have genuinely improved life chances and outcomes. We are better serving a youngster who leaves school with English and Maths GCSE and a pass in NVQ Information Technology, than we are a student with a pass in English and Maths and fails in History, Geography and Science. In fact if the former pupil is enthused and motivated by the IT then we are probably still better off with that as an outcome than if we managed to scrape the same student a pass in 5 ‘academic’ GCSE’s but had them hating school and desperate to leave the education system at the first opportunity. The 5 GCSE’s including English and Maths is, in my view, the right measure – and one I have no problem in being held to account to – or in striving to improve.
The one thing we do need to be wary of though is in allowing the acceptance of different ‘aptitudes’ to lazily drift into allocation of educational paths by social background. i.e. the assumption that all working class kids will only have an aptitude for vocational studies, and all those nice middle class kids will all be academic. You only have to look at Prince Harry’s exam results to realise that even with the best education that money can buy, some kids do not have an academic bent. We absolutely do need to make sure that however we structure the education system those kids from the poorer areas who DO have an academic aptitude are identified and get the chance to follow that path.
I am not trying to make the case here for a system of secondary modern, and grammar schools. That had its time and served very many, very well. However, it made the call on an individual’s direction too early at 11. Under the right model you need not make the call until 14 and even then you can put in the flexibility to help course-correct (figuratively and literally!) if a mistake in choosing options been made.
The nut can be cracked with sensible setting within schools – and the confidence to share facilities between institutions so that as broad a curriculum as possible is on offer to all children regardless of the school they ended up in due to accidents of geography and their parents background. It does require a new, more adaptable way of thinking, but it will banish the damage that would be caused by either the ‘capability myth’ or the ‘aptitude myth’ that educational policy wonks on both side of the debate seem happy to inflict to prove their point. So for this one Reform: stand at the back of class – must do better.