Across the globe our competitors are overhauling their education systems to meet the demands of the digital age — we must do the same, or get left behind.
It was all so depressingly familiar. While the New Year newspapers feasted on lurid predictions about the various technological advances set to transform our lives in 2016, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan was announcing new multiplication tests for primary schools.
Nothing wrong with that in itself of course, but the contrast seemed to capture the narrow, parochial timidity of this government’s vision for education. Whilst the winds of globalisation and the digital revolution contort the future which our young people will inherit, the government stands mute to the challenges this poses schooling.
Stagnant productivity, rampant inequality, stalling social mobility – education must help to tackle so many of this epoch’s defining problems. What is more, modern schools – as Andreas Schleicher, education expert at the OECD, puts it – “have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t yet know will arise.”
Across the globe the world’s leading education systems are overhauling schooling to respond to the new demands of the digital age. Singapore has devoted half the primary curriculum to music, sport, art and other activities we deem “extra-curricular”. Hong Kong has turned the dial down on formal testing in order to allow for deeper learning. New Zealand, Australia, Canada – all are overhauling their curriculum to encourage more creativity.
This should be a time of unprecedented experimentation and innovation; of looking to recast the fundamental principles of English schooling anew for the 21st century. But unfortunately the Government remains steadfastly wedded to the past. Its restrictive accountability regime is crippling those subjects which best develop the creative and technical skills we need.
Meanwhile, its top-down, target-driven, ‘exam factory’ model of school improvement sidelines those character enriching extra-curricular activities and encourages teaching to the test. On Sure Start, improving childcare quality, effective early years support, boosting teaching quality, strengthening school leadership, reforming inspection, encouraging school to school collaboration and raising the status of vocational education it remains deafeningly silent. And it finds itself embroiled – yet again – in an enormous, party-dividing row about new selective grammar schools.
What this boils down to is a bureaucratic, central command – or, in the words of former Tory advisor Steve Hilton, “Soviet” – approach to education reform that is increasingly out of touch with the modern world.
Thanks to a decade of Labour investment, England now has the most able teaching cohort in its history. And catalysed by social media, there is now a clearly identifiable community of heads and teachers committed to testing new ideas despite government prescription. The Government needs to get out of the way and trust them with the freedom to develop the new ideas we need. In Lincoln, Hartsholme Primary School dispensed with conventional classrooms, embraced a radical, project-based teaching style and moved from a “special measures” to an “outstanding” Ofsted rating in less than two years. What is more, its exam results went through the roof. Yet it takes an unusually confident headmaster to pursue such boldness in the teeth of DfE meddling and an inspectorate which has yet fully to adapt to a change of direction.
Most of all, however, we need to address the long tail of underperformance in upper secondary education, which continues to exacerbate the inequality which scars our society. And the persistent devaluing of technical education has created skills shortages which have significantly damaged our economy.
The bottom line is this: our school assessment system focuses almost exclusively on exam results and sets a floor standard which allows around 40% of children, every year, to fail. It cannot continue. For decades now we’ve been frantically trying to extract marginal improvements out of the GCSE system. It is a straightjacket our schools now need liberating from. To put it simply: there is nothing little to squeeze. And in an era where all pupils must stay in education or training until at least eighteen it has lost all relevance as a school leaving qualification.
Besides, if we scrapped GCSEs in favour of a genuine ‘baccalaureate’ type qualification – as favoured in American or France – there is so much more we could achieve. Raising the status of creative and technical skills; freeing up curriculum time for deeper learning; encouraging a broader range of subjects; stimulating those turned off by the traditional approach; more stretch for brighter pupils; better support for less able pupils – all is possible if we raise our ambitions a little further. We might even include an extended projects or a work placements as formally assessed criteria, which would better help young people with their transition to work or university.
This is an idea which transcends the political divide, uniting left-wing campaigners like Fiona Millar with business leaders and even the former Tory Education Secretary Ken Baker (who, lest we forget, created GCSEs in the first place). And organisations such as the Headteachers Roundtable are already testing this approach in schools.
Yes, the politics of exam reform are never easy – you are always acutely aware of undermining children and teachers’ classroom work. But that is no excuse for continuing to prepare our young people for a future which no longer exists. Let the debate now begin about how to replace GCSEs with an academic or vocational Baccalaureate qualification by the end of the next Parliament.
About the author
Tristram Hunt is Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central and the former shadow education secretary