“The aim of education policy should be to provide the right education for every child. That for some children that will be an education that is firmly based in learning practical and vocational skills. For others, it will be an education based on academic excellence.
A lot has changed in the last 20 years, but that core principle that the needs of every child and every young person deserve to be met still drives my vision of the education system that our country needs.”
So said the Prime Minister in her maiden speech on education in parliament, 1997 – reiterated at Derby College this week.
Read her speech in full here.
There’s nothing to argue against such a statement. We want our children and young people to be able to explore their own interests in schools, colleges and universities throughout the land. We want them to be able to choose between practical and academic subjects. We want them to be creative, literate, numerate, articulate, thoughtful. We want the “needs of every child” to be met.
Nothing wrong with any of this.
Right up to the point when you realise there’s a cavernous gap between Theresa May’s 20 year-old vision (does she do vision?) of parity between vocational and academic learning and the reality of the culture of teaching to the test and high-stakes exams.
Ask a young person who wanted to be a hairdresser or a car mechanic or a musician or a carer how much of their time in school was dedicated to the pursuit of activities that would further their interests and their skills in their chosen area of expertise . . . and their cries of derision will be deafening.
Instead they will explain how they were “encouraged” to concentrate on EBacc subjects, irrespective of their interests or abilities. They will tell you about the mindless repetition of work to perfect their answers to standardised exam questions. They will explain the monotony and the stress of a formulaic curriculum that prevented them from using and developing many of the collaboration and communication skills that the CBI and other leaders in industry continue to say are sadly lacking in our micro-managed, academically focused education system – culminating in young people who are not “prepared for the life of work and adulthood”.
“Through education, we can become a country where everyone, from every background, gains the skills they need to get a good job and live a happy and fulfilled life.
To achieve that, we must have an education system at all levels which serves the needs of every child.”
Reality check: This isn’t happening with our current education system. Even the Prime Minister, with the advantage of hindsight recognises this.
“To give them the skills they need to succeed, we need an education and training system which is more flexible and more diverse than it is today.”
What a pity that the new MP for Maidenhead didn’t pay heed to her 1997 vision and consider the damaging effects of narrowing the curriculum – damage to creative subjects, to adolescent mental health and to the teaching profession.
Her solution to the problem is to set up a post-18 review of education.
“On top of the firm foundation of a great primary and secondary education, and the reforms we are putting in place to introduce high quality T-levels we now need to ensure that options open to young people as they move into adulthood are more diverse, that the routes into further education and training are clearer, and that all options are fully accessible to everyone.”
This is insufficient on many levels.
Firstly, why has it taken so long for any politician to conclude that the current system is failing at least 50% of young people – i.e. the ones that don’t go to university? (Ed Miliband actually commented on this issue several years ago but nobody listened.) How is that statistic ever acceptable? And that’s assuming that the 50% who go to university are all perfectly content, employed and successful. Which is far from the case.
Secondly, how can you possibly look at changes to further education in order to create parity between vocational and academic pathways if you are totally ignoring the 14-18 curriculum and are determined to maintain its academically focused status quo?
Changes need to happen before a youngster is 18 – not just when they reach the so-called age of adulthood.
Thirdly, how are we judging “success” in all stages of education? Will the Prime Minister not only acknowledge that our system charges young people significantly more for their education than other countries, but our young people are also massively over tested after enduring years of preparations for tests and exams? (NB The same Prime Minister sent schools minister, Nick Gibb, into action last week to introduce yet another meaningless test for Primary age children.) Will she acknowledge that the success criteria on which schools and children are judged are mainly an account of their academic and test-taking prowess? This increasingly stifles creativity at nursery level and at Key Stage One as well as further down the line.
Fourthly, how can you challenge schools to enable their young people to make vocational choices if the schools themselves have to report on and are judged on how many young people go to university, and how many go to a Russell Group university?
This review will apparently focus on four lines of inquiry.
- How we ensure that tertiary education is accessible to everyone, from every background.
- How our funding system provides value for money, both for students and taxpayers.
- How we incentivise choice and competition right across the sector.
- How we deliver the skills that we need as a country.
Look at the words and phrases here – “competition” “value for money” – “needs of the country”.
This is about the economy, stupid. And political power.
Does the Prime Minister think we are all so politically naïve that we can’t see why she’s done this? The last election showed a highly favourable response to Labour’s commitment to scrapping university fees. This alone is the real reason she’s looking into post-18 education. In reality, she doesn’t really think there’s anything wrong with the school system.
“The Conservatives have put restoring rigour and high standards in our primary and secondary schools at the heart of our education reforms.
We launched a major expansion of the academy programme, putting school teachers in charge of raising standards in their schools.”
And we also went a step further, creating free schools.”
A final reality. The higher education system, since the introduction of fees, is deeply flawed. As was said on the BBC news this week, as a business model, it’s not fit for purpose. The “return” on a £50K debt with its 6.1% interest rate charge can be far less than expected, and that’s before you investigate what you’re actually receiving in the way of tuition and personal support for your £9K per annum fee (which is all too frequently preposterously negligible). The burden of this debt is morally and economically unacceptable for very many of our young people. And when did we decide that higher education is essentially about business models and returns on investment rather than the empowerment, learning and greater wellbeing of our young people?
We certainly would welcome a comprehensive review of the tertiary education system. But to contain it to post-18 is inexcusably narrow, and therefore pointless. There are too many flaws, too many problems, too many conflicting policies to make a year-long review of further and higher education meaningful without looking at education as a whole, and in the words of the Prime Minister, to truly consider whether “education is the key to opening up opportunity for everyone.”