We are still stuck with a school system that fails to cater for two thirds of young people
Nuition fees, more money for schools, even the pay of university vice-chancellors: beyond Brexit and our crazy politics these have dominated the news agenda. Just as “education, education, education” were Tony Blair’s declared top three priorities, so it seems they remain. Fantastic. Who could argue that this is any other than the most fundamental of policy issues?
This week’s commitment to protect real funding per pupil at state schools will be welcomed by the schools and by parents. The way we fund universities, and the level and type of debt with which students graduate, of course matters. But if it is really education, education, education we care about, then my goodness are we missing the point.
Take the basic issue of funding. Yes, schools have suffered real cuts in funding per pupil over the past couple of years. But if we are so worried about funding then why are we not talking about further education? Spending per school pupil is almost double what it was in the mid-1990s. It continued to rise up to 2015 when virtually every other public service was being cut. Spending per student in further education, by contrast, fell from 2010 and is no higher today than it was a quarter of a century ago.
Literacy and numeracy are among the worst in the developed world
This relative neglect of the FE sector, and in particular of vocational education, stands out in international comparisons. As the OECD has pointed out, the UK actually spends a lot on education relative to most of its competitors, the exception being on vocational education. So if we’re going to talk education funding let’s at least acknowledge the FE and vocational sectors. But let’s also spend more time looking at the outputs.
How about this for starters. The literacy and numeracy skills of 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK are among the worst in the developed world. We are pretty much the only country where that younger generation is no more literate or numerate than the generation now approaching retirement.
The reasons for this are deep and complex, and they certainly go much deeper than funding. One part of it is that, almost uniquely, we end all instruction in maths and English for most after the age of 16. Recent moves to force those who fail GCSE maths and English to retake them may help a little, but it feels like sticking plaster on a system broadly unchanged for generations. We continue with high-stakes exams at age 16 followed by an extraordinarily narrow and specialised curriculum for 17 and 18-year-olds. This is all focused on the needs of universities and works for many who go on to higher education, but it is wholly inappropriate for the two thirds or so of young people who do not.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find another country that does anything similar. But politicians of all stripes have been far too scared or conservative or complacent to challenge this clearly anachronistic system, falling back on defending our “gold standard” exams. Instead of serious long-term reform, schools have had to deal with relentless curriculum and assessment changes, currently involving changing the grading system for GCSEs from one that goes from A* to E to one that runs from 9 to 1. If that’s the solution, I fear we may have lost sight of the problem.
Whatever the merits of GCSEs and A levels, the lack of a clear path for those wanting to pursue vocational training is a longstanding failure. The result is that, according to the OECD, fewer than a fifth of our 25 to 34-year-olds hold a worthwhile vocational qualification compared with, for example, half in Germany and a third in France.
To be fair to the government it is introducing new technical, or T level, exams to run alongside A levels, which are intended to clarify that path. This might turn out to be a really important reform, though resources will be needed to make it work, as will continuing focus and scrutiny. But contrast how little politicians and the media have to say about this with what they have to say about student fees. Perhaps they still think this is something likely to affect only other people’s children.
As for universities, what we should really be focusing on is the fact that too many courses at too many universities produce, at considerable expense, graduates who go on to earn no more than non-graduates. Given that we have something close to a graduate tax, the level of fees matters but it isn’t the fundamental problem. The subject, quality and structure of the courses is what matters, especially given the way so many pupils are funnelled by our schools and exam system into university almost irrespective of whether it is the right choice for them.
There’s much more too we should be worrying about. It remains the case that boys are doing far worse than girls in school — fewer than two thirds of GCSEs taken by boys are graded C or better, against nearly three quarters taken by girls. Are we happy with that? Gaps in outcomes by social background are persistent. Can we do more to close the gap? We do less well through secondary school than other countries at making the best of our most talented students, certainly in maths. Shouldn’t we worry about that?
All that, and more, is what education, education, education should be about. We need to get funding right, but if we continue to focus just on that while ignoring longstanding structural problems we will continue to fail far too many of our young people.