By Elise Vipond on 25 Feb 2022
Most would agree that the value of education amounts to much more than exam results and test scores. However, as we work to prepare children for the future, it can be difficult to strike a balance between academic success and the wider learning experience. Read ahead to find out how things may be reformed.
Levelling Up Education, or Kicking Away the Ladder?
In 1999, Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, pledged to send 50% of young people to university and as of 2019, that target was finally reached. Yet already, the government is working to reverse this trend with the view of reducing costs to the taxpayer and achieving a more holistic, skills-based approach to post-16 education. Under these new plans, the government would impose controls on student numbers; crack down on “Mickey Mouse” degrees; and bar access to student finance for pupils who fail their Maths and English GCSEs. This follows concerns that 81% of graduates will never pay back their student loans, especially after studying degrees that fail to equip them with the appropriate skill set for the job market. As Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee, explains, there needs to be a greater emphasis on skills instead of ‘uni, uni, uni.’
But others have spoken out against the proposals, arguing that rather than levelling up, the government is simply ‘removing the ladder’ for disadvantaged students. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that although some students will see negative financial returns from a university education, a significant majority of 80% will end up better off with an average return of £110,000 per individual. Yet, had the new GCSE requirements been in place for 2020, almost 19,000 students might have missed out on this opportunity, having lost access to their student loans. Subsequently, there is a concern that new thresholds, whilst aimed at cutting the cost for the exchequer, may come at the cost of social mobility as well.
It is not just the government with an appetite for change. Recently, businesses reported that they have lost faith in the exams system and rely instead on their own assessments of recruits, with almost 75% conducting their own cognitive ability or online aptitude tests. Research shows that around 20% of employers are dissatisfied with graduates’ level of basic literacy, analytical, and problem-solving skills, and one-third believe that graduates lack sufficient knowledge of their chosen career. Parents are also critical of the exams-based model, fearing that the prioritisation of academic achievement comes at the expense of children’s mental health. Furthermore, young people themselves feel that their education limits creative thought and expression, preparing them solely for constant examination. Overall, there seems to be a growing consensus that the current education system is lacking in balance. The question is how it might be reformed.
Whilst plans drawn up by the government would make Maths and English GCSEs a condition of entry into university, a Commission of Inquiry conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has concluded that those same qualifications are unfit for purpose. Under the system of “comparable outcomes,” the distribution of grades is swayed by how similar cohorts have performed in the past. As a result, roughly a third of children fail to achieve a standard pass in Maths and English GCSEs each year. In contrast to government plans, the ASCL recommends replacing the content and structure of current standards with a “passport” in each subject. Passport-based assessments would be taken at the point of readiness and built upon between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. Critically, this new method would be designed to demonstrate what pupils can achieve, rather than what they cannot.
Free Schools or Family Schools
Speaking of innovation in schools, some experts wonder how the prospect of an all-MAT sector might be reconciled with this ambition. Whilst the government aspires for homogeneity across education, the New Schools Network (NSN) charity warns that banning single-academy trusts would eliminate one of the key drivers of diversity and innovation. Director of the NSN, Sophie Harrison-Byrne, stresses that ‘in a world with no room for the creation of new SATs, there would have been no Reach Academy Feltham, no School 21, no Derby Pride, no XP, no Michaela,’ and other well-renowned schools, which ministers themselves have often celebrated. Leaders of free schools are in agreement. Ed Vainker, the co-founder of Reach Academy Feltham, explained that when his school was opened, ‘independence felt essential to fully realising our vision. It would be a shame if that door was closed to other new providers.’
Others emphasise that ministers’ vision of schools belonging to “families” is not necessarily incompatible with the free school model. XP School originally opened in Doncaster, 2014, and several years later now forms part of the XP Trust, which runs three free schools and five converter academies. Likewise, West London Free School started in 2011 and eventually went on to sponsor five academies. Free-school leaders acknowledge that there are huge advantages to working together, however ‘you have to start somewhere. You can’t create a forest without planting a single tree.’ Thus, ministers are urged to consider whether the simplicity of an all-MAT system is worth the price of potential stagnation.
In one way or another, it seems education is set to change. But as we move forward, it is also important to look back. Only by understanding our past achievements can we imagine what is possible of the future and strive to adapt, as we work to support the next generation to thrive.