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Chris McGovern: Half our universities should revert to being polytechnics


There is a close relationship between a country’s economic success and the quality of its education system. It was largely for this reason that in Britain a basic education was extended to all in 1870. In the face of growing competition from Europe and from the USA it was imperative that Britain remained competitive. The growing economic power of Prussia and the rest of Germany, in particular, was going hand-in-hand with the creation of an educated workforce.

In 2016 nothing has changed. The economic power of the Asia Pacific, in particular, may have been sparked by political change but it is sustained by, and dependent upon, education. The message for Britain and the West is clear – continuing prosperity will be dependent on the skills level of the workforce. Either we compete in the classroom or our economy, and with it our country, falls into terminal decline.

The UK economy is ever more reliant on the input of immigrant workers: doctors and dentists, bankers and baristas, plumbers and bricklayers, caterers and carers, drivers and cleaners and, perhaps most of all, nurses and hospital staff. Where would we be without them?

The truth is, as employers repeatedly tell us, too many of our school leavers are unskilled, unmotivated and unemployable. Even the simple, if onerous, task of fruit and vegetable picking has become more or less totally reliant on imported foreign labour. It seems that too many welfare-dependent Brits will not get out of bed for an early start, piece work and comparatively low pay.

According to a recent OECD report 16-19 year-olds in England are the most illiterate in the developed world and the second worst for mathematics. In contrast, their grandparents are around the top of the international rankings for their generation. Uniquely, compared to other developed countries, we are going backwards in terms of educational attainment. We now have three times as many low skilled 16-19 year-olds as top performing economies in Europe and the Asia Pacific.

Around 9 million people in England of working age have low literacy or numeracy skills according to the OECD. This shocking statistic is against a background of ever increasing numbers of graduates; what the OECD describes as “a large university system relative to a poorly skilled pool of potential entrants.” The report concluded that at least 20 per cent of graduates struggled with basic literacy and numeracy and that money would be better spend on basic education than on higher education. Graduates with low basic skills are unlikely to find employment that will allow them to pay off their loans.

The Government has invested a lot of confidence, as well as money, in its education reforms. A majority of secondary schools now have academy status and with it freedom from the baleful effect of local authorities. The GCSE examination monopoly, however, remains in place and at post-16 A-Level still dominants. More rigorous GCSEs, A-Levels and national tests are in the pipeline but they are unlikely to be sufficient to bridge the attainment gap of up to three years between us and best performing education systems around the world.

Nor do we have a teaching force that can fully deliver what is required of it. The government is keen to tell us “we have the best generation of teachers ever in our classrooms.” This is not reflected, however, in the relative decline of standards highlighted by international comparisons, the persistent complaints of employers and the fact that many universities feel the need to run ‘remedial’ catch-up courses for new undergraduates.

In November 2015 the National Literacy Trust reported that a majority of teachers confessed to not feeling competent to teach the National Curriculum grammar, spelling and punctuation required of Key Stage 2 children (age 7 to 11). The “best generation of teachers ever” has got us where we are today. If we wish to match the competition we need to raise the quality of our teaching force.

We, also, need to ditch the ‘one size fits all’ secondary school curriculum.

Not all children benefit from an academic curriculum beyond mastery of the basics. By the age of 13 or 14 we need a vocational pathway as much as we need an academic pathway. The British snobbery about the superiority of the ‘academic’ over the ‘practical’ has to end. The current shortage of skilled workers in the building trade, for example, will not be remedied by requiring non-academic youngsters to pursue academic study.  If we wish to be less dependent on immigrant workers, we need ‘gold standard’ vocational schools alongside equally ‘gold standard’ academic schools. We, also, need separate but equal ‘gold standard’ qualifications for each pathway. And post-18 we need to convert half of our ‘universities’ back to vocationally orientated polytechnics.

Raising the quality of our teaching force, restoring credibility to public exams and bringing an academic-vocational balance to our education system would bring us more into line with the most successful education systems around the world. These proposals should not be seen as simply an option but as a necessity for the future prosperity and well being of our country.


(Image: David Davies, Flickr)

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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