Remembering what education is for.

We all know August is the silly season for the media but, my goodness, there were some wild education stories flying around last month!

Of course, at results time policymakers and the press indulged in the usual sport of knocking the very qualifications our young people have worked so hard to achieve. Thus Lord (Ken) Baker, and others who should similarly know better, decided to air their view that GCSE has had its day and should wither on the vine. Nothing’s for ever, of course, and the exam is now more than a quarter of a century old. But, at a time when schools will just be starting to teach the new style of GCSEs, it seems unfortunate and insulting to candidates to rubbish it.

Of course, there’s an underlying truth in this debate, one that overlaps with the usual and inevitable concerns about the variable quality of marking. That truth is that we are doing too much examining. Policymakers have distrusted the teaching profession for so long, and government has put so much pressure on schools to hit particular benchmarks and targets, that the feeling has grown that teachers can’t be trusted with any more in the way of internal assessment than merely marking a bit of coursework.

What’s the result? Young people deprived in the summer of several weeks of consistent and coherent teaching while the exams behemoth lumbers into action. And then we can’t find enough people to mark them. It’s not that there’s a chronic shortage of markers: what we’re suffering from is a chronic overload of examining!

But it wasn’t only the exam system that was called into question. Some of the same voices decided to have a go at the whole idea of university education: “What’s the point of going to uni? Just get an apprenticeship and move on into paid work. Obv”!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think apprenticeships are great: my only fear about the current expansion stems from the fact that I don’t trust government to keep supporting the scheme as it needs to be supported. It needs to lean on industry, too, so that the CBI stops moaning about the education of the young and the development of a workforce and puts its money where its mouth is.

Nonetheless, although we’re right to be pushing and expanding apprenticeships, I can’t see any reason for the recent media fashion for knocking university. What a waste of time a university degree is, it was suggested. And then there was a lot of research (much of it pretty spurious) purporting to suggest that hardly one university graduate in five gets either a decent job or one with any connection to the degree subject studied.

That is where the whole vocational/academic argument falls down. Some of the hardest courses to get on to are the most vocational. A medical degree, that long haul leading to becoming a doctor; veterinary science; dentistry; even the slightly less prestigious but very vital pharmacy and analogous health-related courses: all are intensely vocational. They lead directly to a profession: curiously, although it’s so hard to get into medical school, we still aren’t producing as many doctors as the country needs, a shocking dereliction by government over many years.

The country is short of engineers, too: we should be pushing and encouraging young people to study engineering at the highest level, not denying the value of three years at university.

That, for me, is the nub of the matter. Three years at university. While there are many university courses that are entirely vocational, linked to a specific profession as I’ve described, lots of university degrees (the majority?), while not linked to a particular career, allow young people to spend three more years in education, perhaps following it with a master’s in order to pursue and area of special interest, while growing up and sharpening their intellects. Thereafter they can go into any profession: but they’ve had the benefit of a university education.

That’s the point. It’s education. The university-deniers ignore the value of university as Higher Education. For me it was a depressing summer, in media terms, to see such a narrow-minded, entirely utilitarian view of education apparently prevail. Finally, I received some comfort. Writing in theFinancial Times, John Kay took issue with the arguments that appear to be gaining such traction. The belief that study should be focussed more on job-specific knowledge is misconceived, he said, observing that the benefits of a liberal education do not go out of date. Hurrah!

What does this mean for us in schools? First, we shouldn’t push anyone anywhere! We need to make sure that there are different pathways (to use a jargon term) and that we help young people leaving school to find the one that suits them: “horses for courses” was always best.

Second, we should encourage young people to take up apprenticeships where they are suited to them (and vice versa), and between us we shouldn’t let either government or employers off the hook: they’ve got to make them work, and better than they have done so far.

Finally, let’s not permit those Gradgrindian voices to deny the value of education for education’s sake: that involves ensuring that university courses are available to young people and, where circumstances make it difficult for them to qualify through a standard A level route, other access routes are created and employed effectively.

Well, there are three purposes for the coming term and year, and not bad ones in my view. I’ll try to keep them in mind, at any rate.

Dr Bernard Trafford is Head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a NET Leading Thinker

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