It's a myth that students can't be stretched01 December 2009
Across the developed world 16-year-olds at school today are working towards a minimum of four, five or six stretching academic qualifications next summer. In countries such as Japan or Canada, the school systems have emphasised academic study for many years. In others, such as France or Germany, schools have recently raised the bar for fear of being left behind by their international competitors. In all cases, it is accepted without question that a broad core of academic achievement should be the result of students' years in compulsory education.
In England it is very different. Here students are expected to study only two academic GCSEs (English and maths). The proportion of students taking a modern foreign language has fallen from about three quarters before 2004 to less than half. Only three in ten take history, with a similar proportion for geography. Of the ten largest developed countries, only Australia expects so little of its school leavers.
This is a result of conspiracy rather than cock-up. For the past 25 years, under governments of both main parties, the principle of education policy has been that large numbers of 16-year-olds - perhaps half - are unable to cope with academic study and must leave it behind as soon as is practical. Governments have pushed vocational qualifications despite the repeated failure to construct a robust alternative to GCSEs. They have skewed the market in favour of vocational qualifications by giving them a spurious "equivalence" to their academic counterparts. The facts have not been allowed to get in the way of the theory.
This peculiarly British capability myth has damaging consequences at every level of economy and society. The individual student taking vocational qualifications is at a big disadvantage in the labour market. GCSE study confers a 15 per cent earnings premium while many vocational qualifications have a negligible or even negative effect. The new vocational diplomas will be no different. Furthermore, these students effectively shut the door to university as soon as they leave the academic path. As Alan Milburn reported earlier this year, only 0.2 per cent of individuals not taking academic qualifications progress to higher education.
As individuals suffer, so does the wider economy. Vocational qualifications make sense in a world of jobs for life (or at least very few job changes), but any last vestiges of that world will not survive this recession. The economy needs people who can move between careers. Any restraint on that is a restraint on growth the economy can ill afford.
And society is damaged too. By creating non-academic routes, governments have sought to erode social divides. In fact they have reinforced them. Independent schools allow students to pursue rigorous, well-respected qualifications such as the International GCSE and International Baccalaureate. Only six in the country offer the vocational diploma. Meanwhile, the worst-performing state schools, generally serving deprived communities for whom education is disproportionately valuable, strive to improve their league table performance by funnelling children into easier qualifications. A third of schools no longer offer history GCSE. An increasing number encourage students to take a vocational version of science that has double the league table value of a GCSE despite having no formal written examination.
The excellent Teach First programme puts graduates from leading research universities into inner-city schools as trainee teachers. Fully 70 per cent of those on the programme believe that their schools encourage pupils to pick qualifications that will benefit the school's ranking over the child's long-term future.
The other part of this story is that the quality of academic qualifications can be lacking in this country. A new comparison by leading academics of GCSEs against their international counterparts has found that maths and science examinations "show a noticeable intellectual deficiency" and a "clear aversion to academic rigour". While competitor countries stretch their students and encourage them to think, English exams focus on process and application at the expense of knowledge and reasoning.
In its latest education Bill, the present Government will guarantee every child the right to study for a vocational qualification. A better guarantee would be a broad and deep academic education culminating in at least five rigorous academic GCSEs.
There is no doubt that England's general national culture does not value the academic. Gail Trimble, the University Challenge winner, vilified for her outstanding academic knowledge, said it all last year: "I try really hard not to come across as too clever." But that is all the more reason that our education system should resist this unattractive part of our national story and instead provide an education of real benefit.
Andrew Haldenby is the director of the independent think-tank Reform (www.reform.co.uk), whose report on academic advantage, Core Business, is published today
The German lesson
Germany had always viewed its three-tier education system as a world leader, in which academic study was the preserve of the best students. However there has been a bout of national soul-searching in the past decade after the country's poor performance in Pisa, the OECD's education league table, in 2000. The "Pisa shock" triggered a national debate.
The Hauptschule, for the least academic 30 per cent of students, was criticised for effectively having become a "school for leftovers". Ministers responded by standardising curriculums in German, maths and science and introducing higher standards for these core subjects in the Hauptschule.