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Time for a “great debate”, not just a grade debate?

The seasonal moral panic over examination grades is upon us again but we need to get beyond a concern about grades if we are to develop the education system that our young people deserve, our employers demand and our society needs, argues Tony Breslin

Like it or not, examination grades provide the shorthand on a young person’s school career, often an unfair and always an incomplete one but a shorthand nonetheless; in recent years they have provided a second, equally limited shorthand, on the performance of our schools and those who teach in or lead them. Grades provide the evidence on young people for employers and admissions tutors and, with the advent of league tables, the evidence on schools for parents and politicians. Thus, whatever the outcome of Ofqual’s review of this year’s GCSE grades, the grade culture is unlikely to shuffle off the educational stage anytime soon.

To be stuck with the paraphernalia of tests, targets and tables is one thing.  Our resultant obsession with grades has, though, had another (unintended) outcome – a failure to give any serious consideration to what we teach and, by extension, what we examine.  The issue is not that we should or shouldn’t assess what we teach; we should. Nor is it that to share the outcomes of this testing with parents, employers and others is somehow wrong; it isn’t.  It is that whatever we teach and however we structure our schooling and our further and higher education systems should be guided by a sense of educational purpose.  What, as educationalist Richard Pring puts it, do we want an educated 19 year old, whatever their ability or social background, to look like? What personal qualities, what basic knowledge, what core skills, what appreciation of the arts and the humanities, of science, of politics, of economics do we want (and need) them to have? What kind of citizens, entrepreneurs, employees and parents do we want them to be?

This failure to discuss educational purpose, to have as Jim Callaghan famously called for in his Ruskin College speech of 1976, a “great debate” about how we do schooling and what we do in schools, has led to our adoption of several default positions, critically about the nature of the knowledge we seek to transmit in our classrooms and the way that we organize it. In particular, we have adopted a particular type of subject (the conventional single academic discipline) and a single mode of examination, the GCSE.  This gives us a conception of curricular breadth that is measured in numbers of GCSEs taken and passed rather than in the range of activities and types of learning experienced.  In particular, as I have argued in a recent blog post (, this leads to a situation where subjects never suited to GCSE assessment - often those with a practical, technical or creative orientation - are only able to secure their place on the timetable if they are forced into this assessment form or if an alternative form of assessment is granted GCSE 'equivalence'.  When such a subject is cast in the GCSE frame, the charge of “soft option” goes up; where equivalence is claimed, scepticism is the inevitable outcome. More often than not, the upshot is that such learning is either lost to the curriculum or marginalized within it.  And nowhere has this been more the case than with vocational education and training.

Culturally, we seem programmed to favour, as the historian G.D.H. Cole in reflecting on the social status of the new entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution, famously put it, ‘gentlemen’ over ‘players’, old money over new, the academic over the vocational, the theoretical over the practical.  The result is plain to see: vocational courses as the ghettos for students who have fallen foul of the academic mainstream, skills gaps across sectors such as manufacturing and construction, a shortage of young people interested in studying engineering and applied science (such that in the competitive HE market that we have created universities are cutting back on offering such courses) and a school curriculum that normalizes the taking of, typically, nine or ten GCSEs while failing, too often, to introduce students sufficiently to themes such as entrepreneurship, financial literacy and community engagement and skills such as team working, problem solving and public speaking.

This is emphatically not a call to abandon the academic curriculum, and replace it with some form of utilitarian drudgery that champions relevance over rigour; it us to call for a re-conception of what we mean by curricular breadth and to argue that any curriculum claiming to be broad and balanced should include a strong academic spine, the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions both for effective citizenship and for effective engagement in the employment market, in commerce and in entrepreneurship.  It is to argue that six GCSEs (rather than ten) augmented by really good quality work-related, community-focused and career-relevant learning might.

We cannot afford to continue to leave car engines to the ‘naughty boys’ and MBAs to the super-elite while doing nothing to develop the professional and vocational capabilities of everybody else; nor can we pretend that one qualification format can meet the assessment needs of subjects and courses that vary enormously. Professional and Vocational Education, as we ought to recast this area of learning, should sit at the core of every learner’s post 14 curriculum, as relevant to the young person who strives to enter the established professions (and their middle class parents) as the young person interested in carpentry or care.  Some of our most sought over undergraduate programmes have always been overtly vocational (architecture, medicine, law, civil engineering).  Why shouldn’t we accord Professional and Vocational Education this kind of status, whatever its focus, in the school curriculum?

Of course, if we are to work towards offering high quality, high status Professional and Vocational Education to every young person post-14, this will not come cheaply or quickly.  It will involve reworking the relationship between schools and FE colleges such that colleges are used for their expertise in professional and vocational preparation, not as a dumping ground for the hard to manage, those that schools find too difficult to reach.  It will also require significant investment in, and a refocusing of, teacher education and school and college leadership training.  In austere times, such expenditure is a big ask but the one third reduction in the cost to schools of GCSE examination fees will make a useful contribution. And, as a society, we will be focused not just on how well our young people do in their examinations but on the breadth and detail of what they study and the way in which they are assessed, a great debate and one based on much more than just grades.

Article by Tony Breslin. Views expressed are those of the author.

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