reen Papers (government consultative documents) never
really set the world alight because even when they have been
supervised or thought through by somebody as intellectually
challenged as Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, they
are bound to go nowhere. However, the new consultative document
on 14-19 education is worrying to say the least. Most teachers
and educators might rightly take the view that the permanent
revolution which has raged through the education system over
the last 20 years or so has done nothing positive in terms
of educational outcomes. All that has happened is that teachers
have been demoralised and an alphabet soup of qualifications
has meant that employers have only the haziest notion of
certificates actually mean.
The running sore in the secondary education system post the
1944 Butler Education Act was selection. Some children were
told at 11 years old that the future for them was academic
study and perhaps university, but most children were told
that their future was one of general education and the world
of semi-skilled or unskilled employment. We divided children
up into sheep and goats and the goats very largely came from
working class and ethnic minority backgrounds. The education
system reinforced and underlined the inequalities which already
existed in society.
Life chances were essentially about choosing your parents
wisely. The movement towards comprehensivisation tried to
undermine this. That awful experience of being told at 11
that you had failed, that you were no longer wanted on the
bus of academic achievement, that you could not succeed, was
going to be a thing of the past. Of course, it never went
away. Selection at 11 plus has remained in place in many parts
of the UK and it turns out that when the former Education
Secretary, David Blunkett, spoke out at the Labour Conference
against selection by examination or interview, it was a "joke".
Ha ha. Anyone who knows anything about the educational system
and the way that the processes work knows that if you tell
people at age 11 that they are likely to be successes, the
chances are they will be successful, and that if you say to
people that they have failed that is another self-fulfilling
The new Green Paper on education raises some important issues.
Essentially looking at education for the 14-19 age group,
14 is when pupils start their GCSE studies and 19 is when
they are likely to have completed their A Level/A2 studies.
In 2001, half of all 16 year olds in England and Wales achieved
at least 5 GCSEs at grade C or above, which was the government's
target. But the other way of reading the figures is to say
that half did not and left compulsory education with fewer
qualifications or perhaps no qualifications at all. Hence
the Green Paper.
What the Green Paper is pointing towards is what we do about
the other half and it is an issue which has been a continuing
feature of debate about education in Britain for more than
a century. How can vocational education be given the same
or similar status as academic education, given that it is
academic qualifications which provide the route into professional
and middle class occupations?
The problem with the Green Paper, badly written as it is,
is that it reintroduces the notion of selection, but at 14
plus rather than 11 plus. In effect, children will be told
as they enter the GCSE cohort that they will be going in an
academic direction or in a vocational direction. Now you can
dress this up however you like, but in reality half of all
14 year olds will be told they are not up for it. They are
failures in terms of the academic system; A Levels, decent
university places are not for them. In other words, there
will be a 14 plus which will sort, select and grade and tell
young people, as young as 13, that they are not wanted on
board. Why is a Labour government moving in this direction?
Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education, which is often
seen as being right wing, has quite rightly said "14
is much too young to tell children they are not capable of
getting mainstream academic qualifications". In reality,
vocational qualifications will still be seen as second class,
and it is working class children and young people who will
be excluded from qualifications which will get them places
at top-flight universities.
It is already the case that loans and fees are excluding
young people from ordinary backgrounds from seeking places
in higher education, and also women, older students and those
with family responsibilities. Labour in office has talked
much about widening participation and bringing into the education
system students from non-traditional backgrounds, but the
reality is very different. New Labour has reinforced the inequalities
which exist in the education system, not eroded them. The
push towards selection, city technology colleges, magnet schools
etc, makes things worse for children from working class backgrounds.
A level playing field on which children can compete through
equality of opportunity is much preferable to the gimmicks
and stunts which the Education Department (or whatever it
is currently called) seems to think are the way forward.
The education system surely should be one where children
and young people from modest backgrounds are able to strive
and achieve and raise themselves through the opportunities
that they are offered. It will never be an equal system: children
from middle class backgrounds who have parents with university
degrees or siblings who have been through the system ahead
of them, will always be advantaged compared to children from
perhaps working class or ethnic minority backgrounds. Life
is not fair and nobody ever told us it was going to be, but
surely we can have a system which gives young people whose
origins do not automatically point in the direction of academic
success a chance? Telling 50% of 14 year olds that they are
not wanted on the voyage and that they can be written off
as aspirants for academic courses does not seem to me to be
the route to go down.
If the educational system is to give people chances then
it should not shut off options too early. We all know about
late developers. I was one myself. Education did not kick
in for me until I was 17 or 18. For other people it might
be their 20s or 30s. If we are serious as the present government
pretends to be about lifelong learning, we need to see it
as something that is as real when you are 14 as when you are
30. Do not shut down the options for children and young people.
Actually do not shut down the options for anybody.
The Green Paper states boldly "we must also continue
to break down the divide between education and training and
emphasise that all pathways contribute to employability and
responsible citizenship". Would that this were the case.
There is actually a philosophical and intellectual distinction
between education and training. The way that I was taught
it was that you could be trained to be a concentration camp
guard but you could not be educated to be one, because if
you were educated you would not want to do it. Education is
about a leading out. It is about a conclusion that none of
us can predict. That is not training.
At one point the Green Paper says 'today young people aged
between 14 and 19 may be more independent and autonomous than
were their parents and grandparents, they also demand more.'
Most people who work with this age group recognise that the
whole process of "empowering" students and pupils
in that particular age group has actually resulted in infantilising
them. They expect more, but are not prepared for taking responsibility
for their own learning or even their own lives. The direction
of the educational system, and particularly the dreaded concept
of relevance, has not helped young people prepare themselves
for life after education. A simple point is that many young
people cannot write an essay or produce coherent sentences,
they cannot spell and they are unable to present a structured
argument. They have been disempowered by an education system
that refuses to grant them the tools of the trade in terms
of being informed, perceptive, fluent and cultured members
of the wider community.
At my local university I recently discovered that the best
selling book was a work on how to write better essays. In
other words, people have got GCSEs, they have even got A Levels
and yet they cannot write an effective essay. To put it bluntly,
the system has not taught them to think. It seems as though
under the present government's proposals 50% of our young
people will be condemned at age 14 to be VDU fodder and will
not even have the opportunity to aspire to the farrago which
currently presents itself as university education.
Essentially the Green Paper is proposing a divisive secondary
education system where half of all young people will be branded
as incapable of academic study aged 14 and no doubt will mostly
be shunted off from the schools they attend to further education
colleges, or other further education providers, which will
have neither the skills nor the motivation to care, train
or educate them adequately. We are set fair for a system of
educational apartheid. Already the league table system encourages
schools to get rid of those young people who are not likely
to prove successful in formal examinations. Increasingly,
colleges will be expected to deal with young people whose
schools have designated them as going down the vocational
route rather than the academic one.