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British education is already a vale of tiers

The responses to Gove’s plan to revive O-levels say more about the dire state of politics than education.

Tom Finn-Kelcey

Topics Politics

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Last Thursday’s leak of education secretary Michael Gove’s planned school-exam overhaul has led to more column inches, tweets and general discussion amongst the chattering classes than any story about education for some time.

Gove has floated the idea of scrapping the current GCSE examination and returning to a much more rigorous and challenging O-level-style exam for 16-year-olds. (GCSEs replaced the previous system of O-levels for brighter pupils and CSEs for less-able pupils in September 1986, with pupils sitting the first GCSE exams in 1988.) Gove is also proposing the abolition of retakes and the end of a market in exam provision between different examination boards. Currently, different exam boards can appeal to schools to use their courses by making them easier than their competitors’ courses.

These are potentially huge steps. But sadly, the media coverage and the political responses to these proposals have not done the issue anything vaguely resembling justice. The level of superficial commentary and downright nonsense pouring forth from the mouths of the powerful on this issue has been astonishing. What is plain is that for Britain’s elites, state education is something they literally know nothing about.

When challenged about the proposal to replace the current mish-mash of qualifications pupils study during Key Stage 4 (that is, when aged 14 to 16) with a more traditional O-level-style exam, plus a lower-standard qualification for less-bright pupils, Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg attacked the plans saying: ‘I am not in favour of anything that would lead to a two-tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrapheap.’ In addition, the plan was attacked by Andy Burnham for Labour, who criticised Gove’s proposal as ‘elitist’ and accused him of wanting to turn the clock back to the 1950s. This developed as the ‘lead theme’ throughout the course of the next 24 hours: how could anyone possibly suggest a two-tier education system for British children in the twenty-first century?

Well, here’s the thing. I hate to break this to the political classes, but we already have such a system, and have had one for some time. Students aged 14-16 are starkly divided in terms of the subjects they study and the exams they sit. In fact, I would like to suggest that Britain today has, at the very least, a four-tier education system at secondary school.

On the lowest rung, we find a range of very basic and undemanding qualifications, devoid of any serious intellectual content and providing no realistic possibility of a bright future. Thousands of Britain’s children sit low-quality qualifications every year, and have been doing so in wildly increasing numbers over the past decade. As I have discussed previously on spiked, some schools have encouraged children on to these courses under the illusion that they might lead to a career, and also to avoid having to challenge them academically. Evidence for this can be seen laid bare in last year’s Wolf Report, which identified a substantial group of our children let down by being entered for a range of appalling and useless qualifications.

On top of the rise in the lower tier of vocational qualifications for teenagers, there is a second-lowest tier, too: the intermediate-level GCSEs. The most striking example of these in many ways is science. Awarding bodies now offer a number of science GCSEs, ranging from single ‘core science’, which offers a foundation in the subject for those who will take its study no further, through to ‘triple science’, which consists of three separate studies in GCSE chemistry, physics and biology for those who are likely to progress to A-level and beyond. Any university worth its salt will not even look at applicants for science subjects who have done the intermediate version, as they argue – I’m sure, quite rightly – that it lacks the necessary rigour. How could this be described as anything other than a two-tier GCSE system?

In the next group up, we have the higher-level GCSEs – the things I’m sure most of the political elite assume that nearly all children sit. However, skipping over all of this are many of the private schools, large numbers of which have long ago abandoned teaching many GCSE courses due to the lack of rigour in the curriculum. When league tables were altered last year to focus on core GCSEs, many of the private schools dropped a substantial number of places. Was this due to falling standards? No, it was due to them moving to things like the IGCSE, a more rigorous international exam that until recently wasn’t recognised in our league tables.

The lack of comprehension from Clegg and the rest when it comes to the true nature of our education system is as offensive as it is breathtaking. If our political leaders were childless and had not been into a school for 20 years, you might (almost) forgive their lack of understanding of the present tiered system of secondary education. But most of them do have children currently in school – it’s just that they don’t allow their little darlings to attend the sort of school that would offer them these lower-level qualifications. Not only do many of our politicians not send their children to state schools, there is a bigger problem in that there is very little professional educational experience within political circles. Only 24 MPs have any experience of teaching prior to taking up politics, contrasted with the 90 that were formerly political advisers.

The education debate here shows us just how big a problem we have with elitism in our politics. It is not the individual background of politicians that bothers me – everyone is entitled to be a representative, from the richest to the poorest. The problem is that, as with so many issues in the UK today, the complete detachment of politicians from the realities of life for ordinary people is leading to poor understanding of issues and therefore bad decision-making. People in government – both civil servants and ministers alike – are not impacted in any way by the consequences of their decisions when it comes to public policy, especially on education. If Clegg’s child came home and announced that he was going to be studying for a BTEC in hairdressing rather than history GCSE, I have no doubt the deputy prime minister would be on the phone to the school in moments. This detachment between decision-makers and those who must put up with the consequences of those decisions is a fundamental flaw in our system that is bound to produce bad results.

The saddest thing of all in the response to Gove was the mindset of his opponents, which was to look for immediate opportunities for point-scoring rather than engage in serious debate. The above quotes from Labour and the Lib Dems are really telling; rather than get into the substance of the issue, both responses were designed as signals to the electorate about the values the two parties would like us to believe they hold. In Clegg’s case, it was to signal support for meritocracy; in Burnham’s case, it was to signal a sense of solidarity with the working class. The sorry truth is that if either of them truly held these values they would have engaged substantively in the issue.

The decision simply to soundbite over this issue shows us how little importance both Labour and the Lib Dems actually place on the education debate. Both clearly see it as an opportunity to posture, rather than a fundamentally important element of societal progress. For our politicians, education is simply another issue to kick around Westminster to score some cheap points. They should be thoroughly ashamed of their poverty of response and failure to seriously engage, given what is at stake for us all as a society.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics, PSHE and citizenship at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Faversham.

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Topics Politics

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