Closing the mines of the very fuel we want…

I regard the annual DfE publication of results as a remarkable example of misinformation about school performance and travesty of what schools set out to achieve for their pupils.  It gives rise to a genuine feeling amongst educationalists that the DfE is now promoting a new discipline, that of Agnatology, which is defined as the deliberate spread of ignorance to obfuscate and misinform.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools (Ofsted) makes this clear this week in his speech on vocational education in response to the Centre Forum think tank proposals to raise education standards.  He argued that it is a “moral imperative as well as an economic one that we do something now to change direction”.  At present, Sir Michael states that  the education system in England does not offer enough opportunities for those who do not succeed at GCSEs. “The statistics show that those who fail to achieve the required grades in maths and English at 16 make little or no progress in further education colleges two years later. Preparation for employment remains poor and careers guidance in both schools and colleges is uniformly weak.” (BBC website)

For schools that cover a broad ability intake such as Claires Court, we work with our pupils and parents to ensure they achieve the very best short and long term outcomes. The focus for many will be the Ebacc mix of English, Maths, the Sciences, a humanity and an MFL.  Political chicanery has caused such uncertainty in English and Maths that we have moved to include international GCSEs in our mix of qualifications, yet these outcomes are not included in national league tables .  Moreover, our purpose is to develop the broad and diverse skill base of our pupils, be they in Arts, Drama, Sports or Technologies, not just a narrow academic range that suits a government narrative, and which may be better assessed via BTEC than A level. And all of this is really well supported by high quality careers advice and personal profiling from age 11.

If we only focus on Ebacc subjects, then we deny our pupils access to those disciplines that they must begin to specialise in at age 14 or below, those regarded as vocational and more practical skills-based, if they are going to develop the ‘crafts’ well enough to succeed.  Our Sixth Form range including Arts, Business, the technologies (Design, Food, Information, Materials and Music/Media/Photography) and a strong take up in Physical Education and Sports. We cannot achieve excellence enabling pupils to enter higher education or the world of work aged 18 unless we shape the curriculum to include the acquisition of required specialist skills  during the GCSE years – post 16 is too late.

Sir Michael’s speech also made clear: “There must not be another “false dawn” in improving vocational options and “the country cannot continue to fail half its future”. He warned that vocational training should not be a “dumping ground for the disaffected and cater just for the lower-ability youngsters”.

And there’s the rub. Industries such as Acting, Broadcasting, Music and Sport are being asked to explain why in recent years so many independently educated children have risen to the top. As the career of Andrew Murray shows, it’s early specialisation and lots of very hard work that makes the difference. Claires Court provides the academic education for all, and as appropriate skewed to support their very real abilities and talents. As our former pupil Amber Hill demonstrates so ably, leaving our school aged 16 to pursue her exceptional talent in skeet shooting wasn’t a career choice made then – it was supported lower down in the school such that she could develop all of her talents, not just those of an Ebacc kind. Our former pupils of her generation are now studying at Oxford , Cambridge, the Russell group and broader university mix, pursuing their academic dreams; others are at work, in training or in apprenticeships just as engaged.  Amber will be in Rio at the Olympics this coming Summer, that’s a great headline of course. Not so newsworthy, but as important, so many others are also well on track to realise their dreams, academic and vocational.  Our mantra is not that ‘everyone must win prizes’, but that everyone can aspire and learn to work hard enough to succeed by their own lights.

I also agree with Sir Michael that in previous decades, education more generally was less accountable and failed many.  But let’s not damn all by the same brush, because vocational, college-based education has provided so well for the recovery of talent, particularly in design and music, outspokenly supported as such by Tracey Emin and  Jarvis Cocker.  Remarkable about this period of time in education (the 2010s), is that we can have pupils in education and training simultaneously, and amazing courses under the BTEC umbrella remit and as a result include vocational and academic development in tandem.  By contrast, the relentless focus of DfE on Ebacc, and a matching failure to provide suitable investment in the 14-18 years for the development of high quality vocational options in the state sector is serving the country very badly indeed. DfE have tried too hard; honestly, the changes to the exam system (losing controlled assessments) already wrought had done enough.

As I write, this failure to invest in national vocational education is ‘closing the mines of the very fuels we want*’. For example Ofqual (another agency of government) has required new BTEC programmes to contain a much more rigorous written component as terminal assessment.  What value such terminal exam over written coursework and published project? Moreover, Sir Michael’s call to government to improve technical education must not be ‘spun’ to cover the over 16+ years range only, because actually all the ground work has to be done in the earlier secondary years.  Writing about tennis and shooting is not what Murray and Hill want to do for their country at this stage in their careers – that’s what happens post competition, perhaps in their forties and beyond! And that’s precisely what we see in the careers of Cocker and Emin now, artists for sure, but publishers and commentators to be admired for and attended to.  As a school leader, I have listened to their stories and take heed of the lessons therein; Education generally and the schools that provide same need a better measure of performance that of the DfE ‘filtered’ results tables, from which almost all that is vocational and international has been simply airbrushed away.

*Jarvis Cocker

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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