24 November 2022
Weakness of Top-Down
By Lynda Goetz
Many years ago, fresh out of university, when I was teaching English in Spain, I remember robustly defending our ‘A’ level exams to a Spaniard. I argued that the early specialisation prepared students for university and the focus on a single subject. He argued that forcing pupils to make such an early choice was inadvisable and unfair, and that it was far better to allow students to continue with a wider selection of subjects, even if that meant longer university courses. The system used in this country is encountered almost nowhere else in the world, except for a few Commonwealth countries. A wider curriculum up to the age of 18 is generally preferred.
Over the last few years, discussion on this topic has been reopened, particularly after the introduction of AS levels and continuous assessment resulting in grade inflation which devalued the system. Some (mainly private) schools have either switched over to or added the International Baccalaureate (IB) to their curriculum. An English Baccalaureate (EBacc) has been created, although the uptake of this so far has not exactly been overwhelming.
The French have had their own Baccalaureate since Napoleonic times; the Germans, the Abitur; the Spaniards, their Selectividad; the Irish, the Leaving Certificate; and the US the High School Diploma (although there, entry to university depends on SATs, scholastic assessment tests or ACTs, American college testing). In all these cases, rather than specialising early and focusing on just three or sometimes four A’ level subjects, students study as many as eight or nine subjects, nearly always including another language and maths.
With news items over several years bemoaning the fact that many British university students are now innumerate, or even illiterate, is it perhaps time to take another look at our system for granting entry to universities? It would appear, in many ways, to be a good time to do so, particularly as the value of university to all school leavers has also been questioned. Clearly, with 46% of school leavers heading for university, it is unlikely that the academic level is going to be as high as it was when just 6% were admitted, but surely it does not make sense for it to be acceptable that science students cannot write clear English or that arts students cannot cope with basic maths?
Although it has been compulsory since 2013 for those students who have not achieved the equivalent of a Grade C in GCSE Maths and English to continue studying those subjects whilst they are in any form of higher education, it is nevertheless the case that a large proportion of students are entering higher education with only basic skills in some areas. I was rather shocked to hear that a Ukrainian teenager who had been staying with his mother at a friend’s house went back to Kyev ‘because he didn’t consider our education system was providing what he needed’. Admittedly, part of his problem was the difficulty associated with studying in a different language, but part of it was quite simply that he did not consider what he was being taught to be of an equivalence with the system in his country.
Although we do seem to be a magnet for migrants from many countries, are we as a nation far too complacent about our institutions? As with our health service, which we continue (clearly completely erroneously) to consider to be the envy of the world, are we making the mistake of believing that our education system is likewise superior to those of other countries? Last year The Times reported that this country was consistently mid-ranking in international league tables, behind such countries as Japan, Estonia, China, Switzerland and the Netherlands. This country’s teenagers were also found to have amongst the lowest levels of ‘life satisfaction’. According to recent research, satisfaction at school in this country appears to drop dramatically between 11 and 14. So whatever we are doing right at the primary or earlier years level is not being carried over into the secondary years.
Perhaps a great deal of the problem is the same as we have with the NHS and with planning in this country; rather than allowing local authorities to have control over their areas and deal with them according to the local and regional differences, we appear increasingly to have everything imposed on us from the top-down. Government decrees; housing targets resulting in large greenfield developments in rural areas and turning villages and small towns into a sprawling suburbia; the NHS has so many layers of bureaucracy that dissatisfaction is increasing by the week; and schools, although liberated to some extent by the formation of academies, are still subject to OFSTED inspections which take little or no account of the intake and make-up of the pupils in the school. Might those who govern us be prepared to relinquish just a little of their power and control, and trust those who have more local and specialist knowledge with a greater say in running our essential systems and institutions?