Justine Greening has been keeping a low profile since taking over as Education Secretary. Fortunately, her boss at Number 10 has been less shy. She has recognised that there is a job to be done. Unless we wish to become even more reliant on skilled immigrant labour in order to meet the challenges of post-Brexit Britain, the school system needs to up its game rather a lot.
Forget the self-congratulation from Ofsted and the schools minister about almost 90 per cent of English schools now being “good” or “outstanding”. This delusional and hubristic redefinition of the English language may have the effect of making us feel better but it has no part play in evaluating how well we are really doing on the only stage that matters, the international one. We need some honesty. The OECD has made clear that the UK is, at best, stagnating in terms of educational standards. True, reforms in England have pushed pupil attainment standards ahead of Scotland and Wales, but these two parts of the UK seem to have an educational death wish as a consequence of their adherence to regarding schooling as a vehicle for social engineering.
It appears that Theresa May, at least, may understand that children need to be educated in line with their aptitude. Academically able pupils need academic teaching such as is provided by grammar schools. The recently published, and new, “Progress 8” data, for all its imperfections, confirmed very clearly that more able children do far better in grammar schools than in comprehensives. By supporting an expansion of grammar schools the Prime Minister has been prepared to grasp the nettle of underachievement among academic youngsters in too many comprehensives.
Now, she has gone a necessary stage further and declared an intention to promote specialist maths schools. Given that our 15-year-olds are around three years behind the Asia-Pacific super-star education systems in this key subject, her initiative should be welcomed and supported. As with the expansion of grammar schools, it is not only desirable for educational reasons, it is an economic necessity. We simply must maximise the native intelligence and potential of our population.
Of course, the aptitude of many children is not especially academic and their needs and, indeed, the needs of the country, are not going to be met by providing them with a mainly academic curriculum at secondary school. It is becoming increasingly obvious and imperative that vocational/technical education must be provided as an alternative pathway to the academic route. This is the norm around the world in successful economies. The only argument that we should be having is over when the vocational/technical route should be on offer. In Switzerland it as young as 11 whilst the Chinese leave it until age 15.
The Prime Minister is proposing some action in this direction. She plans to set up higher education “Institutes of Technology” to compete, on an equal footing, with the academic route provided by universities:
“Our action will help ensure young people develop the skills they need to do the high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future. That means boosting technical education and ensuring we extend the same opportunity and respect we give university graduates to those people who pursue technical routes.”
She is right and is to be applauded for her good sense and her grasp of economic reality and of how it spills over into our education system. She is not, however, going far enough. Age 18 is too late for technical education to commence. Her technical higher education initiative needs to be in addition to introducing a technical/vocational schools in tandem with each new grammar school.
What is more, she will need to break down the snobbery associated with grammar schools. This will only be done by ensuring that technical/vocational schools really are the equal of grammars, especially in terms of having links to employers and to the prospect of a future job. When some youngsters are ‘savvy’ enough to choose a technical/vocational school instead of a grammar school, because it matches their aptitude, we shall know that the era of the ‘bog standard’ comp is over and that we can begin to consider the possibility of competing with some of the best education systems internationally.
(Image: Richard Harrison)