Thursday, 21 June 2012

A three tier education system?

by Mark Corney

The shock announcement by education secretary Michael Gove to replace GCSEs with O-level and CSE style examinations at 16 has raised the spectre of a two-tier education system.

O-levels for the academically bright and CSEs for the academically challenged is the masterplan.

Separating the academically able from the academically challenged at 14 will ensure bright kids from poor backgrounds study the right O-levels, staying-on at the same school to study the right A-levels to enter the best universities.

The problem, of course, is that most pupils from poor backgrounds would be channelled at 14 into taking the lower level CSE-style courses.

In fact, the masterplan is a three tier rather than a two tier education system. After all, the secretary of state must keep onside Lord Baker and the offer of high quality vocational education between 14 and 19 for able pupils. 

Pressure on parents of academically bright pupils at 14 to take academic re-styled O levels will be enormous.

But academically bright pupils who are on course for top grades in O-level maths and English will be given their head to study high quality vocational courses from 14 - for 20% of their time at school or college but no more -  despite teachers secretly believing this is still the wrong tier.

If the vocational tier is full of academically bright 14 year olds, however, the gap with the academic tier will be marginal.

By contrast, there will be an enormous chasm between the CSE tier and the academic and vocational tiers.

O-levels and high quality vocational courses for the best and low esteem CSEs for the rest.

This would not be an education system to be proud of nor one fit for the 21st century. It will fail to meet the needs of those who could gain from a decent education system.

With the raising of the participation age to 17 in 2013 and to 18 in 2015, there is a question mark of the appropriateness of public examinations at 16 whatever their form.

And with the Coalition desperate to re-balance the economy away from financial services to high-tech manufacturing, the case for high quality vocational education and training open to all from 14 - the academically bright as well as the academically challenged - alongside maths and English is increasingly strong. 

Politically, of course, the unilateral announcement by education secretary Michael Gove has shattered the uneasy truth between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

In return for the pupil premium the Liberal Democrats turned a blind eye to curtailing access to vocational education between 14 to 16, accepted that 16 remains the divide in education with the vocational route only becoming available to most young people at 16, and abandoning their cherished committed to a 14 to 19 system of education and training.

Instead of instigating a great 'summer' debate over a return to O-levels the secretary of state created an opportunity to talk openly about a 14 to 19 phase where academic and vocational education is available to all.

Mark Corney is policy adviser to the Campaign for Learning. He writes in a personal capacity.

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