Friday, March 18, 2005

Fantasy Manifesto

Ahead of the forthcoming General Election, Phil Hunt at the Cabalamat Journal has come up with an excellent idea - that bloggers come up with their own fantasy manifesto. Over the next few weeks, therefore, you'll probably see the odd posting from me explaining roughly what sorts of policies I'd like to see introduced in certain areas. I can't pretend to be a total expert in many areas, so I'll limit it to areas I am particularly interested in. This probably means a lot of constitutional waffle, but I apologise for that in advance. If we didn't have such a mess of a constitutional system, I wouldn't need to bother about it.

I'm going to start off with a sketch of what I would like to see in the education system. I was worried this morning when I read the Times and found out that I agreed entirely with a Simon Jenkins article. The number of Latin and Greek words required for GCSE has just been slashed once again, so about 350 words of Greek and 450 words of Latin would suffice. We really do suffer from a dumbing-down culture where the political imperative to improve exam results leads to a massive dilution in quality.

The major part of the problem lies in the prevailing orthodoxy that because all sorts of education are equally valid, they can all be marked according to the same criteria. Thus we have the UCAS nonsense that a Vocational Double A-Level is worth twice the amount of points of an A-Level in an academic subject - these 'points' being used as part of a 'tariff' system for university admissions. Worse still, the Higher Education Funding Council (now a political rather than an academic body) uses this points system to set the offensive "benchmark" quotas for the elite universities on how many pupils from state schools they "should" be admitting.

This is indicative of two false orthodoxies. Firstly, it assumes that numbers and systems are more effective in deciding educational strategy than an approach based on the need of each individual student. Secondly, it suggests that merely being taught is sufficient to attain merit in any field. A qualification in tourism does not qualify you for a hard academic course at Oxford - just as much as an A-Level in English would not be much use on more vocational courses. Different types of education ARE valuable, but that does not mean they should be equated.

The "one-size-fits-all" system we have at the minute does not good for anyone. Instead, I would like to see a system instituted that is something like the German model - academic grammar schools, and then varying levels of technical and vocational education at two separate levels. The system is also flexible - so that different development levels can be accounted for. The failure of the grammar schools was because it didn't make sufficient provision for vocational education for those failing the eleven-plus, not because the system was inherently wrong.

We need to create a system of vocational education that is not equated to the academic structure. While the two are linked, they are both cheapened. No-one takes vocational qualifications seriously, and yet the academic criteria are changed subtly which reduces their rigour as well. There is nothing wrong with vocational education, and the way to recognise this is to treat it as something totally different. Equating it with GCSEs and A-Levels assumes there is a point to prove. The best way of achieving this is to institute a continental system where different schools teach different skills to better reflect the aptitudes of their pupils.