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Fragmenting education

Will the UK government's plans to modernise secondary education, through a greater emphasis on specialisation, make a muddled situation even more confused?

Various Authors

Topics Politics

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New Labour’s green paper Schools – Building on Success was published in February 2001 to great acclaim – and disclaim.

As a cornerstone of its plans for the ‘modernisation’ of secondary schools, the government has proposed that over five years the number of specialist schools should be increased, from the 535 at present to 1500, making nearly half of all secondary schools specialist (1).

Some greeted these proposals as a ‘commonsense’ revolution within the Labour Party. But others, including Phil Willis of the Liberal Democrats, argued that they would mean a reintroduction of selective education, while the National Union of Teachers and the Secondary Heads Association suggested that they could lead to the creation of a ‘two-tier’ education system.

But these proposals represent neither common sense, nor a thorough-going reintroduction of the selective principle. The problem with specialisation, in the way it has been proposed, is that it will narrow the educational experience of many pupils, and will confuse still further the muddled terms on which compulsory education is organised.

In the existing specialist sector, schools have been allowed to develop areas of expertise in technology, foreign languages, arts or sports, and the government has proposed that business, engineering and science should be added to this list. Specialist schools have also been given the right to select a rather marginal 10 percent of their pupils on the basis of aptitude – only seven percent of them actually do this – and have been allowed to opt out of sections of the National Curriculum at Key Stage 4 (ages 14 to 16), in order that pupils might pursue additional studies in their area of expertise.

For New Labour, one appealing feature of this model of schooling is the claim that specialisation improves the motivation of pupils both within and beyond their school’s area of expertise. But for a government usually so keen on finding quasi-scientific evidence for new educational methods, the evidence behind this assumption is rather slight.

In June 2000, the London School of Economics produced a study comparing relative improvements in pupil performance in specialist and non-specialist schools between 1993 and 1997. The results showed that the average annual improvement in pupil performance in specialist schools was 32 percent higher at the five good GCSEs benchmark, and 51 percent higher at the single GCSE pass threshold.

These findings do demonstrate that specialist schools are outperforming their non-specialist counterparts – but in absolute terms the figures do not look quite so impressive, with specialist schools showing an average 1.11 percent increase in the number of pupils attaining five good GCSEs per annum, and a 0.65 percent average annual increase in the number of pupils attaining any pass grade at all.

And it has not yet been proved that this enhanced performance is a product of specialisation per se. As Geoff Whitty, director of London’s Institute of Education, recently noted in relation to the differential: ‘We don’t so far have robust enough research to tell us whether the recently heralded better performance of specialist schools results from anything other than their enhanced funding.’ (3)

The promotion of specialist schools is also justified by the claim that these schools are better able to meet the demands of a flexible, rapidly changing knowledge economy. In a pamphlet entitled ‘Education into Employability’, based on a speech given at the Institute of Economic Affairs in January 2001, the UK secretary of state for education David Blunkett explained how the function of schooling was to equip ‘individuals and the country with the skills and the creative, inquiring minds that will drive our economy in this new century’ (4).

But even if you endorse the rather convoluted theories about the ‘knowledge economy’, it remains unclear as to exactly how the expansion of specialisation within compulsory education will better prepare pupils for intellectual demands of the future. Specialisation at such a young age, particularly the forms of vocational specialisation that will be offered to many, could have the opposite impact.

With a specialised curriculum, students will inevitably receive a narrower and more partial form of schooling, precisely when they need to have their general knowledge built up. And vocational schooling, in areas such as business or sports, will by its very nature impart skills that will be of value in a very limited range of contexts.

Most parents are quite rightly aware of the more limited nature of vocational skills, which is why, in order to sell these new vocational pathways, it has been proposed that the qualifications that will be used in these routes will be called ‘Vocational GCSEs’. But mere branding will not change the fact that students who pursue vocational pathways from 14 years of age will miss out on that which is offered by a broad and balanced formal curriculum – namely, the chance to develop their general knowledge and generic reasoning skills.

Which is not to suggest that the National Curriculum, as it currently stands, is adequate. Indeed, the fact that many pupils do not find it sufficiently challenging is acknowledged in the green paper, which suggests that more able pupils should enter an ‘express set’ in which they would complete Key Stage Three (age 11 to 14) a year early. If implemented, this would mean that some pupils, under the new provisions, would in fact begin to specialise at the age of 13. A more straightforward, and less disruptive, solution to this problem would be to make the tests harder.

The final justification that has been offered for the extension of specialisation, is that a greater proportion of schools will be given the freedom to develop a distinct ethos and mission. And this, it is claimed, will more effectively motivate those who manage schools, in addition to making them more responsive to the demands of the local communities and economies that they serve.

In principle, there is much to be said for granting schools greater autonomy. The government should, as much as is practicably possible, step back from intervening in schools, so that the professionals on the ground can take responsibility for their actions. Ironically, however, at almost every other level of schooling, from classroom practice upwards, New Labour is limiting the autonomy of practitioners. With its National Literacy Strategy, for example, primary school teachers are not only being told what they should teach week-by-week, but are also instructed on the methods and timings of their lessons.

Yet when it comes to defining the necessary content of the higher levels of the curriculum, and stating the mission of the sector as a whole, New Labour is suggesting that it is up to schools to find their own way.

By adopting this approach, New Labour has demonstrated its own lack of clarity about the general principles around which compulsory education should be organised and the necessary content of the curriculum. The most likely outcome of these proposals is that they will introduce even more incoherence and confusion into the UK secondary education system than there is already.

Before finding ever-more complicated ways to modernise education, perhaps the UK government should first work out exactly what it wants education to be about.

Read on:

The key to skills, by Alex Standish

The UK’s non-science curriculum, by David Dunn

David Perks is a science teacher in south London
Toby Marshall lectures in media studies in east London
(1) Schools: Building on Success, available here
(2) Examining the Impact of the Specialist Schools Programme, Anne West et al, available here
(3) From Geoff Whitty’s speech at Promoting Comprehensive Education in the Twenty-First Century, 3 February 2001, University of London Union, University of London
(4) ‘Education into Employability: The Role of the DfEE in the Economy’, available here

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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