Saturday, 22 August 2009

Tory education reforms are bottom of the common sense league.

Over the past week or so much has been made of the attitudes of David Cameron’s new model Tories to the dear old NHS. While he’s been at pains to distance himself from the comments made by publicity hungry MEP Daniel Hannan there is a lingering suspicion that outside its Notting Hill branch most of the party would happily see it consigned to the dustbin.

Naturally this is a cause for concern, however bureaucratic and wasteful it may be the NHS does at least ensure that people get medical treatment regardless of their ability to pay up front, not something that can be said for most of the alternatives on offer. Can the Tories be trusted with the NHS? Up to a point, if only for the reason that dismantling it would be a public relations disaster from which the party would be unlikely to recover.

Let’s ask ourselves another, equally important, question. Can the Tories be trusted with Britain’s education system? Based on their performance over the past week I doubt it.

The normally sensible Michael Gove this week announced that an incoming Conservative government would give schools extra league table points for steering students towards ‘hard’ A Level subjects such as maths and the sciences and knock points off for students enrolled to study ‘soft’ subjects such as media studies et al. Striking a resolutely populist note he told the BBC that the current A Level system had been ‘dumbed down’ and that league tables were largely to blame.

Too much pressure, he said, was being placed on students likely to get a C grade in hard subjects to take easier options in the hope of getting an A and thereby improving the school’s place in the league tables, as a result potential high achievers aren’t being stretched and students who are struggling were being pushed to one side.

This position is based on a report written by Richard Sykes, a former rector of Imperial College London and contains, as most muddled thinking does, a germ of common sense. League tables have gone from being a useful measure of a school’s performance to being an opaque public relations exercise that confuses parents, students and schools alike. A point highlighted in a report from the Teaching and Learning Programme this week, which called for school league tables to be published with a ‘health warning’ because they often have the potential to be so misleading

Handing out extra points to schools on the basis of pushing students into studying subjects that are perceived to be harder will do little to address the problems inherent within the system, and may even make things worse for schools if the drop out rate increases. The plan is also flawed because along with the government’s failed diplomas it ignores vocational courses altogether.

Unsurprisingly a group of Oxbridge educated conservative politicians has, yet again, made the mistake of believing the only test of educational success is whether or not a student makes it into university. While we do need more graduates we also need to educate the next generation of trades people, but if schools are actively discouraged from providing vocational courses because there are no ‘points’ to be gained from doing so that simply isn’t going to happen, much to our national cost.

Tinkering with league tables isn’t going to improve the life chances of the kids who won’t be amongst the 26.7% of students celebrating getting top marks at A Level; neither is downgrading the vocational training that offers them a chance to get ahead in a tough jobs market.

What might improve things is killing off the AS Level that has turned A Levels from a time when students can explore the world of learning and even read a few of those funny papery things called books that haven’t been cut into chunks to be regurgitated in an exam room into just another hurdle on the educational obstacle course, and having done so placing it on an equal footing with vocational courses so that the age old divide between academia and ‘trade’ is finally done away with.

So long as they continue to play to the gallery and perpetuate prejudices that should have been rejected long ago the Conservatives cannot do more that pretend to be equal to one of the greatest challenges that faces any government, educating the next generation of workers.

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