According to their general election manifesto the Conservatives “know what works in education”. It is: “great teachers; brilliant leadership; rigour in the curriculum; discipline in the classroom; proper exams.” The past five years have shown, however, that identifying the characteristics of a high quality education system is not a problem. It only requires us to open our eyes to what is going on in the best performing school systems around the world and, in some respects, in the very best UK schools.
Alternatively, one can apply a bit of common sense. Is it necessary for children to be taught letter sounds in order to read? Do children need to know their times tables in order to multiply and divide? Is there a place for grammar, punctuation and spelling in English lessons? It is quite shocking that these matters have been, and still are, contested so vigorously by the ‘Blob”, the educational establishment.
As successive governments have discovered, implementing the reforms necessary to achieve educational excellence is a great deal harder than simply recognising what constitutes that excellence. As part of the Coalition Government, the Tories have had some success in reforming the paperwork. Phonics, times tables and grammar, for example, are all now firmly entrenched in the revised National Curriculum. We have, also, been promised more rigorous GCSEs and A-Levels.
A degree of scepticism remains, however, and not just because the likes of Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal and “Blackadder” have made it on to the new A-Level syllabus for English. As we celebrate V-E Day, it is remarkable that the new National Curriculum for History does not even require World War 2 and Churchill to be taught, let alone Victory in Europe Day. Fake ‘skills’ have largely replaced ‘knowledge’. A few days ago an armed forces charity published a ‘war-knowledge’ survey of young people (18-25 year-olds). A majority had no idea of what VE Day was all about. The charity described the findings as “astonishing”.
As ever, there is a wide gulf between National Curriculum rhetoric and the reality of what has been, and is, going on in the classroom. Nevertheless, we can thank the Tories for not taking us fully down the ‘knowledge-lite’ pathway of the disastrous and misnamed “Curriculum for Excellence” in Scotland. It has, already, sparked a decline in literacy standards north of the border. Wales and Northern Ireland are following suit.
Reforms to raise educational standards pose a considerable barrier to governments because, mostly, they depend on teachers for their implementation. The classroom is a citadel that politicians cannot penetrate. Even Ofsted inspectors, the ‘enforcers’ of policy, are very rare visitors. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Conservatives have taken the easier path by focusing on ‘structures’ – providing a greater choice of comprehensive schools via academies and free schools. As commendable as it may be to have some diversity in the way schools are administered, it does not address the most the most fundamental barrier to raising attainment. Comprehensive school or grammar school, free school or local authority school, private school or academy – all offer the same discredited 16+ exam, GCSE.
Post-14 schooling, in particular, should relate directly to the ability and aptitude of pupils and this should be reflected in a choice of examination pathways. Academic children need an academic examination such as the UK-produced GCE O-Level; banned here but sat by pupils in education ‘super-state’ Singapore and elsewhere. Youngsters whose abilities are ‘practical’ rather then academic need ‘gold-standard’ vocational exams leading on to restored polytechnics that, equally, are a feature of Singapore but common in some form across a range educationally high performing states.
The single reform that is most likely to raise educational attainment in this country is opening up the public examination system to genuine choice and competition. If the new Conservative government wishes to live up to its manifesto promise of “proper exams”, a start can be made with a ‘stroke of the pen’ by placing O-Levels on the list of ‘approved’ qualifications.