Saturday, January 15, 2005

The shame of the Times

I was furious on Thursday when I read the latest wrecking job that the Labour government were carrying out on our education system. Rather than pursuing true educational excellence, we instead see a post-modern view that "all education is equally valuable" leading to ridiculous fallacies that what is important is not what is learnt, but how much learning is done.

Any system which allows for a distinction in a vocational course in cake decorating to be rewarded more heavily than a GCSE Grade A in Physics is a sham, and nothing short of a national disgrace. It is justified by saying that the course in cake decorating requires 100 hours of “guided learning”. However, in exactly the same paragraph of this article from the Times, a spokesperson from the people who offer the course say "it might have equal weighting to a GCSE but we would never market it as such. These are practical qualifications."

And this is the entire point that I am trying to make. Academic and vocational qualifications are entirely separate. They both have their own value, but this does not mean that they should continually be compared to each other. It cheapens both - people refuse to take academic qualifications as seriously as they should when vocational "double A-levels" are given the value on UCAS of two academic ones, and at the same time it prevents vocational education from being able to develop independent standards of excellence. For more often than not, in a desperate scramble to try and legitimise their hatchet job on the education system, governments demand that vocational courses adopt unnecessary academic requirements.

Of course, the whole point behind the new changes in the GCSE league tables is designed to attack private schools and to increase the reputation of state schools. The government has abrogated its responsibility to actually raise the standards in state schools, and instead tries to destroy the private schools in an underhand manner. All kinds of qualifications now count in the GCSE league tables, rather than actually focusing on the best qualifications that are a better barometer to future success. All kinds of vocational qualifications now gain "points" for the league tables that are aggregated. An NVQ qualification in computing skills is equated to four GCSE passes at Grade C - yet there is a GCSE course in information technology! Now, in official GCSE league tables, aggregating meaningless qualifications in vocational subjects is equated with academic achievement. Never before has the "scouts badge" jibe at GCSE qualifications seemed more accurate.

What really riled me, however, was the leading article in the Times on Thursday. It contains lots of points with which I passionately disagree - in particular it lauds specialist schools, when in fact the system is riddled with flaws. But I will leave those concerns till another day. Instead I will pick up on the areas of the article that particularly irk me with regards to the question of an academic/vocational divide.

The fee-paying fraternity protests that this allows “cake decoration” and “pattern cutting” to be treated as if they were the equivalent of maths and English. A degree of care must be taken in making comparisons. Those who represent the independent schools should themselves take care, though, and not repeat the decades-old British mistake of undervaluing vocational skills.

I would be the first to accept that Britain's education system - from the 19th century onwards - has been sadly lacking in providing a high standard of vocational education. However, the problem is not that people are taking exams in "cake decoration" and "pattern cutting". The problem is very much that they are being treated as if they were the equivalent of maths and English - as if these basic skills can suddenly be ignored. Literacy and numeracy are far more important than these vocational skills, for they are absolutely fundamental to the modern world. In this case, the fee-paying sector is right on the mark. If we want our education system to be taken seriously, we should avoid overlapping academic and vocational qualifications as far as possible.

Tony Blair must press on and ignore the ignorant critics.

This was the phrase that annoyed me most of all. As far as I am concerned, there is barely a thing that Labour has done with regards to our education system that has actually been of any success. Instead, he prefers to meddle with the system so as to make it look as if there is significant change, whereas in fact little has actually altered. And some of the time, he is far more dangerous - launching ideologically-based attacks on private schools designed not at educational excellence, but trying to coerce parents into not exercising their freedom of choice. My position on private schools is clear - most of them would go out of business if the state sector was good enough. What won't convince people about state education is if minor vocational qualifications continue to be equated with important and crucial academic ones. WHAT is learnt is in many ways more important than how much, or what type of learning has been carried out. Until the Labour government faces this head on, and creates a proper separation of academic and vocational education, we will not get the education system that this country deserves.