WS Gilbert thought it was ‘comical…that every boy and every gal… is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative’ in the words expressed by that bored sentry PC Willis. The politics would be different now, but we in England and Wales still seem to live in a system where every boy or girl, at least those who aspire to A levels and beyond, are forced either into either the square box that is Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences (AHSS) or the circular peg-hole that is STEM at 16, if not before. Why? No other developed country does this. There is some movement towards at least offering new courses in mathematics of some kind for non-STEM students to take beyond 16, although we have yet to see how this works in practice. This would at least raise the take-up beyond the miserly 13% of the cohort the country currently sees take mathematics post-GCSE.
The Royal Society launches its new report ‘Vision for Science and Mathematics Education‘ today, describing how it would like to see STEM education develop over the next 20 years. I have been on the committee preparing this report over the last 2-3 years and it has been an interesting process. It’s not so easy to think 20 years ahead and to begin with the committee collectively was timid and incremental in its deliberations. I hope in the end we have produced something ‘visionary’, in so far as it describes a very different place from where we are now, even if much of it may superficially look like the blindingly obvious: a trusted teaching profession, assessment of the individual student separate from assessment of the school, good careers advice starting at primary school, access to specialist maths and science teachers in every school (primary and secondary school) as well as well-supported and trained technicians. And, in the context of my opening paragraph, the report advocates a post-16 environment in which every child, whether on a vocational or academic pathway, studies subjects from both the AHSS and STEM sides up till 18.
This is not the first time the Royal Society has advocated this. In 2011 I was involved in the launch of an earlier report which also pushed for a Baccalaureate approach post-16. It got limited airtime and made no significant impact on any policy-making emanating from the Department for Education (DfE). But the Royal Society is not alone in making this call: from the other side of the ‘divide’, humanities and social scientists also see the attraction and importance of this. Coincidentally, this was very clear this week when I participated in a meeting at the British Academy on ‘Broadening the debate: how the humanities and social sciences can help us address global challenges’. A joint meeting with the American Academy for Arts and Sciences, I was the lone scientist invited to speak (although there were quite a number in the audience, I was pleased to see). The panel I participated in was entitled ‘Why a coordinated approach to humanities, social sciences and natural sciences matters’ a topic I felt it was easy to embrace and which directly ties in with the Vision Report, for which I also managed to sneak in a plug.
But perhaps even more relevantly was the other panel of the day on the subject of ‘Promoting Opportunity through Education’. In this session Baroness Tessa Blackstone spoke forcefully about the dangers of early specialisation. Not the ‘gold standard’ that A levels are usually described, she saw them rather as a ‘5th rate tin standard’ due to their narrowness. She was the Higher Education Minister in the Blair administration at the time that Curriculum 2000 was introduced, which recommended that school children should do a broad mix of 5 AS levels followed by 4 A levels. What happened to this? According to Blackstone, what happened was that HEIs did nothing to change their offers to children. Why should schools go for this breadth, she asked, if it was only going to make harder the chances of their students gaining the requisite grades in the 3 A levels that HEIs continued to set as offers? However, the confusion that arose by rushing the introduction of the revised structures and qualifications in no doubt also played their part in preventing schools and students taking advantage of the changes to increase their breadth of study.
So, what would HEIs do now if the exams at 18 were reformed to something like a Baccalaureate system? Discussions with some HEI stakeholders have suggested they would welcome such a broadening, but perhaps that’s what they said last time. I wasn’t close enough to those conversations around 2000 to know what was or wasn’t said or by whom. I do know that any change in 6th forms would necessarily directly impact on what universities could or couldn’t assume incoming students knew. Changes would have to have full buy-in and, as far as I can currently judge from within Cambridge, admission via the IB (International Baccalaureate) which is the nearest approximation to what is being suggested, currently has a very high bar. This is likely to act as a significant barrier at the moment. Changes would need to be explicitly embraced by HEIs across the board, not only in terms of offers but also in terms of first year courses, if the Royal Society’s vision on this front is to be successfully adopted.
Nevertheless, I still believe wholeheartedly a broadening is the way to go because we should not expect students to make an essentially irrevocable choice between arts and sciences at a ridiculously early age. It seems to me – and this will certainly be being followed up – the Royal Society and the British Academy share a common perspective on this issue. Let us hope that those who really can effect policy change read the Vision report, in its entirety, and buy into the ideas presented about how the UK’s children should be educated. Let’s worry more about the education and less about the politics and ideology.
Note: Although I have been a member of the Vision committee this post reflects my personal thoughts setting the work in context. A more specific post on the report itself by me can be found here.