Rethinking Qualifications? It’s About Time

For the second year running our school assessment system is up in the air, for totally understandable reasons. A Levels were explicitly cancelled but the Government seemed incapable of giving a clear answer about this month’s BTec’s, the vocational equivalent. Leaving decisions about whether the imminent exams should go ahead to individual schools was a clear failure of leadership, putting both those sitting the exams and the schools in an invidious position. It is, perhaps, only too typical of attitudes towards anything other than the so-called Gold standard of A levels.

If you read David Goodhart’s book Head Hand Heart (about which I may have more to say in a subsequent post), it is obvious he believes we completely undervalue skills other than those of the head, those exemplified by A Levels and degrees. Approaching the issue from a different perspective, not least in political persuasion, in David Sainsbury’s book Windows of Opportunity, there is a similar conviction that, as a country, we let down those students for whom university is not an option, or at least not the right one for them. For both these authors, there is a clear belief that not only individuals are not well served by the current system, neither is civil society nor the economy. In other words, for the nation too getting this right really matters.

Sainsbury, the former Science Minister under Tony Blair, spends some time in his book discussing the lack of coherence in our current educational system across the different potential pathways. He considers this not least in the context of the implications for the technical support, so vital in both industry and university laboratories. With the dire consequences of Brexit for supply chains as well as for the flow of non-UK workers, both (amongst many other detrimental consequences) immensely damaging for industry as the deal has been configured, the need for these home-grown skilled workers at sub-degree level will become ever more acute.

Not that long ago, Charles Clarke – Secretary of State for Education also in Blair’s Government – admitted to me that his greatest regret as Education Secretary was the failure to implement the recommendations of the 2004 Tomlinson Report. This advocated a comprehensive rethink of school qualifications to create a single, unified diploma covering all levels of ability. As he said, when presenting this Report to Parliament, it would take time to put such a scheme in place but thereby

“all existing academic and vocational qualifications would be brought within its [the diploma’s] framework…. It would establish a single coherent, understood qualifications framework for the first time. It would put vocational and academic qualifications on a common footing, again for the first time.”

He endorsed it at the time, but there seems subsequently to have been a collective loss of nerve about introducing something that might destroy the (in)famous A Levels and such a diploma never came into being.

So, a decade and a half later, we still have A Levels along with an ill-assorted collection of other qualifications, including the BTec’s and the still-being-rolled-out T-Levels, not to mention apprenticeships. These diverse qualifications are typically not well understood by either students (and their parents) or employers, leading to confusion and inadequate matching of skills and needs. Typically, they are also under-resourced, a point well made in the Augar Review, now more than 18 months old and still awaiting a formal Government response.

In the parlance, BTec’s and the rest are Levels 4/5 qualifications and, unlike many other countries, notably Germany, we have a lack of workers for whom this is their highest level qualification. We are well-served with graduates, but far too many individuals do not progress beyond Levels 2 and 3(GCSE), hence providing inadequate skilled and semi-skilled workers to fill crucial roles. Sainsbury is so exercised about these issues, the educational research trust he funds – the Gatsby Foundation – has directed significant effort to investigating the problems in what their reports  term ‘The Missing Middle’ (see here and here). His book likewise looks in some detail at the problems our current system provokes. Of the inchoate range of qualifications he says

“If there is a vast range of qualifications, and the acquisition of them is not valued by employees – either because they don’t know what skills the people with these qualifications have, or because they don’t value the ones they do acquire ­– then people won’t be motivated to get the qualifications.’ And he refers to the fact that this multiplicity of qualifications  ‘do not work in the marketplace, and produce variable and usually poor standards of education and training.”

Under-resourcing and complexity together deliver this unsatisfactory state of affairs.

The UK has a long track record of failing to think through technical training adequately. It started with the opening up of elementary education for all children in Victorian times, when those devising curricula seemed unable to consider these issues, seeing children as either going on to become servants and mill-workers, albeit literate ones, or heading for university and requiring a gentleman’s classical education. It continued with the 1944 Butler Act, which advocated three streams of schools – grammar, secondary modern and technical – the third of which essentially never got built. My generation were simply divided into two, very unequal parts, with the vast majority being condemned to (again) under-resourced secondary moderns.

And it persists today: the UK has failed to work out how to deliver appropriate education for those who could make an important contribution to society and productivity (not to mention to their own sense of self-worth) without acquiring a degree. As the Augar Review pointed out

‘‘In England, only 4 per cent of 25 year-olds hold a Level 4 or Level 5 qualification as their highest level, compared to nearly 30 per cent for both Level 3 and Level 6. In contrast, in Germany, Level 4 and 5 makes up 20 per cent of all higher education enrolments.”

Looking at the state of German and UK industry, the success of the Mittelstand companies, it is worth the Government thinking about these figures very hard.

While we continue waiting for any sign of a formal response to the Augar Review, as we see those nominal gold standard qualifications (not to mention all the others) run into pandemic turmoil, as we reap the alleged benefits of a Brexit that was never going to transform our economy in a good direction, wouldn’t it be a good moment to think deeply about what spectrum of qualifications we need to sustain our economy and how they can be delivered, in a way that works for all, student and employer alike? As the public watch the unedifying picture of a bumbling Secretary of State making bad decisions, or U-turns always too late, with schools thrown into unending upheaval and consequent stress, some radical rethinking to create a coherent system with benefits all round seems called for. Maybe there is no way could it be delivered until after a significant period of stability in all our lives, it could nevertheless provide some optimism for the future.

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1 Response to Rethinking Qualifications? It’s About Time

  1. Henry Gee says:

    I am an alumnus of a Rudolf Steiner school, and, hey, I didn’t turn out so badly. If you leave out the peculiar antiquated philosophy, the education itself is wonderful. The education is suited to the child. Yes, we did public examinations – but in stages, not all at once. And there was still time for drama, crafts and other activities. My class was a genuinely mixed ability class that included people who went to Cambridge to do maths, and people weren’t so academic yet were excellent film-makers, musicians and woodworkers (and went on to happy careers as such). It’s about time educationalists took a good look at Waldorf education.

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