Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Schools Inspector, has been telling an audience at Wellington College, gathered for the “Sunday Times Festival of Education”, that comprehensives today “are a lot better than the comprehensives [he] first worked in 30 years ago.” However, he laments what he sees as the continuing failure of around 20 per cent of comprehensive schools and blames this on “attitudes and practices that are…a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s.” Is he right?
A recent OECD international “Survey of Adult Skills” places the generation in this country educated in the 1960s around the top, internationally, in terms of educational attainment. This was the generation educated largely under the post-war tripartite school system of secondary modern, technical and grammar schools.
According to that same OECD survey, recent school leavers (16-24 year-olds), mostly from modern comprehensive schools, find themselves towards the bottom of the international league table. There must have been something right about our education system in the past if it produced world-beaters in the education stakes! There must be something wrong with the current system if it performs so poorly on the international stage.
A very real issue, and one recognized by the current Government and Opposition, is that public examinations have become too easy. The GCSE exam was introduced to meet the needs of comprehensive schools. It sets the attainment bar so low that, currently, 98.8 per cent (sic) ‘pass’ and 68.7 per cent attain the highest grades (A* to C). The pass rate at A-Level is 98.1 per cent.
When I began teaching in 1975, in a large comprehensive school of 2,000 pupils, most pupils sat either the academically rigorous GCE O-Level or the less rigorous CSE. A top grade at CSE was equivalent to an O-Level pass. It was not until 1988 that the first GCSEs were sat. An exam that is almost impossible to fail has become necessary for the comprehensive system to be presented as a success.
Michael Wilshaw is wrong to disparage comprehensive schools of thirty years ago or more. Many, like mine, were comprehensives amalgamated from secondary moderns and grammar schools. For academic pupils teaching had to be rigorous in order to prepare pupils for O-Levels. Teaching for CSE was less academically demanding but it matched the abilities of less academic pupils. These days, nearly all pupils sit GCSE – effectively a CSE for everyone. Genuine dumbing down!
The Chief Inspector, a former grammar school boy, made clear in his Wellington College speech that “the future is comprehensive” and that “Comprehensives must be unambiguously academic.” He wishes to fulfil Harold Wilson’s dream that comprehensive schools will be “a grammar school for all.” Wilshaw talks about “a discredited sixties ideology” that still infects too many schools whilst, himself, proclaiming the 1960s comprehensive school ideology of Harold Wilson!
Worse, according to Wilshaw, “there is only one school model [comprehensive] that can realistically educate all our children to a standard they and the country deserve.” Wow! One size fits all! What nonsense! How delusional!
Such 1960s fanaticism has no place in an education system. Schools need to match the needs of pupils. Academic pupils need an academic education and so we need lots more grammar schools.
Non-academic pupils should not be force-fed an academic diet. They need to master the academic basics and be taught vocational skills that will make them employable.
We need to get away from the peculiarly British notion that ‘academic’ is superior to ‘vocational’. We need lots and lots of high quality vocational schools. We need credible exams for both academic subjects and for vocational subjects. Most of all we need choice. Let local communities, not an ideologically motivated Chief Inspector, decide the schools they wish their children to attend.