Opinion: David Bell

We need to rethink education – and the DfE’s response to constructive critics, says David Bell

By Civil Service World

05 Feb 2014

As the old saying goes, there’s only one thing more useful in politics than having the right friends: having the right enemies.

The education secretary, Michael Gove (pictured), has been skilled in defining his school reforms against what he calls The Blob – an amorphous, bloated education establishment opposing him at every turn: a mass of bureaucrats, unions and academics who eschew rigour for a left-wing, child-centred, progressive agenda.

But there is another truism in politics: don’t believe your own hype. Whitehall has a habit of isolating ministers. The grind of policy battles, fire-fighting and political ding-dongs can cut you off from outside thinking. The row over Ofsted’s leadership shows the importance of retaining, and being seen to retain, independent voices near the top – not simply ‘yes men’. While The Blob is a useful political tool for the education secretary, it might not be as deep-rooted as he believes.

Yes, for four years the main teaching unions’ leaderships have played into the government’s hands. Their barrage of industrial action and knee-jerk opposition to any change has allowed the education secretary to characterise them as cartoon-like bogeymen. The unions’ political naivety has been astonishing.

But there is a far wider group of non-Blobberati voices across the schools sector, higher education, industry and the voluntary sector, who offer an intelligent critique of where we are now. These people have been broadly supportive of successive governments’ education reforms, and thus are less easily dismissed. They believe in improving our education system, but also advocate sensible debate; and they should be listened to, by politicians of all parties.

A good example of bringing together a range of voices was seen last week with the publication of ‘Making Education Work’: an independent review, guided by an advisory group comprising senior business leaders, scientists and academics (including myself). That’s a powerful alliance whose views deserve a hearing.

We noted that the UK’s economy and societyhas changed out of all recognition in the last 60 years. Yet we are still wedded to a system where sixth formers specialise in three or four gold-standard A-level subjects. Indeed, this may have been entrenched further by a return to “pass or fail” final exams after two years of study, alongside the introduction of more vocationally-orientated Tech-Levels. It is not Blob-like to ask if that is good enough.

I’m not one to join in the national self-flagellation around England’s position in the OECD’s PISA rankings: it’s only one measure. But it’s clear that globalised trade, communications, technology and employment means our young people now compete directly with their peers across the world. And everywhere, governments, employers and teachers are asking the same question: how do we ensure they’re highly-educated, well-equipped to be good citizens, and able to contribute to productive economic growth?

We suggest several ways to achieve this. First, create a permanent, independent strategic advisory body on curriculum, delivery and assessment. It’s time to end education policy being at the behest of five-year electoral cycles, and three decades of changing policy priorities.

Second, widen the narrow choice of A-levels with a broader baccalaureate-style system, based on a core of English, mathematics, science and extended project work. This will require better specialist teaching and facilities; it won’t be appropriate for all; and top-class science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) degrees will still require early specialisation. But the case for students to study as broadly as possible is a no-brainer.

Third, we need much greater emphasis on non-cognitive, so-called ‘softer skills’. These include clear communication in English and maths, STEM and digital competence, team-working, personal and interpersonal skills. Such skills will help to embed codes of conduct, ethics, emotional maturity, initiative and entrepreneurship, creativity and cultural awareness. This does not undermine rigour – it enhances it.

It seems particularly appropriate to be considering this in 2014, as we mark the tenth anniversary of the Tomlinson Report into 14-19 education. This recommended radical reform, including phasing out GCSEs, A- and AS-levels and vocational qualifications, and replacing them with a new diploma. But the then-Labour government feared being seen as soft on standards in the run-up to the 2005 election: Tomlinson was ignored, and replaced by a watered-down and now-discarded alternative vocational diploma.

Yet a decade on we’re having the same argument; and without a mature consensus on reform, we’ll still be here in another 10 years. I doubt the latest A-level changes provide all the answers, and Tech-Levels risk – however unfairly – being seen as second-rate.

Our report challenges all politicians to demonstrate long-term leadership. Forget fighting The Blob. Building consensus on the future direction of education in this country is a sign of strength, not weakness. Who’s up for the challenge?

Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor at the University of Reading, and a former permanent secretary of the Department for Education

This article is an edited version of one first published at https://theconversation.com

See also: Bell criticises divisive politics

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