Focus on exams at 18 and get the curriculum right first, says CBI

Janet Downs's picture
The question “What is education for?” should be discussed before accountability, says the CBI report First Steps: “getting curriculum reform right is vital.” It recommends a core curriculum (Maths, English, Science, Computer Science) supported by no less important “enabler” subjects. It opposes an overly-prescriptive primary curriculum and warns against a return to rote learning.

The report argues that the present examination system is too much of a conveyor belt with a narrow definition of success - the system needs overhauling with less emphasis on exams at 16+. However, its suggestion that pupils make choices at 14 is out-of-step with other countries where upper secondary education begins at 16.

First Steps says it is difficult to deliver improvements through exam systems. It rightly claims that target setting can result in perverse incentives which do little to raise results. Successive governments have also made it difficult to track improvement by constantly moving goal posts, the report says. It recommends that schools should be judged on a range of factors which “go beyond the merely academic”.

Quoting the OECD, the report says that skills are the new “global currency”. These require investment and greater community involvement – “It is up to the wider community – including business – to step up to the mark and support schools where they need role models, advice or experience.” The sad thing about this statement is that similar calls were made 25 years ago when the Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative (TVEI) which raised the profile of vocational education was introduced. But vocational education is still viewed as second-best. And Michael Gove has removed the requirement on schools to offer work experience.

The early years are vital, argues the report, as is parental involvement. The report suggests ways whereby schools can increase the involvement of all parents including giving advice about how parents can support their child’s learning and establishing a welcoming atmosphere based on trust. However, it does not advocate Home School Agreements which it describes as “confrontational” and “toothless”.

First Steps is an important addition to the debate about education. What a pity, then, that the report is based on a contested premise that UK education is failing to deliver by citing a comparison with the flawed PISA 2000 results and ignoring TIMSS which put English pupils at the top of the European tables for Maths and Science. There are other errors. It contradicts the OECD on early years education by suggesting pupil-staff ratio should be increased. It cites dodgy data: stating that the early years pupil-staff ratio is lower in UK than in most western European countries – it isn’t. It confuses the level expected of pupils at the end of Key Stage 2 with the average. And its reasoning is sometimes illogical – applauding Scotland’s carefully developed curriculum while at the same time approving the Coalition’s rushed policies, and praising US KIPP schools which have the type of mandatory Home School Agreements which the report condemns.

Nevertheless, the government should heed the report’s main recommendations about reforming the exam system and the importance of getting the curriculum right first before talking about accountability.

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Sally Davenport's picture
Thu, 22/11/2012 - 12:46


Thanks for this.

How do the Germans see vocational learning? Do they too see it as second best?

Is the future for our kids and grandkids either dressing up as Beefeaters and Victorian whippersnappers to entertain tourists or making t-shirts in factories for overseas kids to wear? Unless we quickly get education right here and starting making/creating quality things again, our future could be very bleak with us not being able to afford basic NHS, social services or education.
I rant on again!!!! x

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 22/11/2012 - 14:09

Don't panic, Sally.

We're doing okay. Contrary to the mythology of decline, the UK's manufacturing output in 2007 was at a record HIGH - about twice as big as it was in 1960. We're the sixth largest manufacturer in the world, which ain't bad for a tiny island.

Problem is, we have to import labour to do most the new jobs because the kids coming out of state schools aren't qualified to fill them.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 22/11/2012 - 15:43

Sally - TES (16 November 2012) had a pull-out section called Learning for Life: Vocational Training and Education (not available on line). It described Germany's successful vocational training system which brings together committed employers and keen apprentices. Key facts:

1 In 2011, more than 60% of German high-school leavers went into apprenticeships - it was the most popular career path. 2/3 of these will get a full-time position after training.
2 600,000 young Germans take up apprenticeships every year - there are 1.5 million in the system at any one time.
3 Each apprenticeship typically lasts three years.
4 A third of companies offer apprenticeships compared with fewer than one in ten in the UK.
5 German employers pick up the full cost and have an active role in shaping the 60 days of mandatory college study which apprentices take each year.
6 German apprentices are paid less than UK apprentices which keeps costs down.
7 The longer duration of German apprenticeships makes them cost effective - the first year is costly when the apprentice needs close supervision but by the third year the apprentice is often performing at the same level as an employee but with a lower wage.
8 The German model has remained largely unaltered for the past 50 years - everyone understands the system.
9 Of nine countries surveyed by City and Guilds in 2008, Germany had the most positive attitude to vocational training. In the UK, on the other hand, vocational training was often viewed as a last resort for those struggling academically.

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 23/11/2012 - 00:53

No, the Germans value vocational learning as part of the mix, along with their academic gymnasien: our open access WLFS is a comparable academic type. Maybe we will see the encouragement of our complementary and equal value schools such as the studio school and the university technical college rather than trying to put all children in one type of school and failing all of them.

By the way someone has to make t-shirts (er...making/creating things) or is that only for people not from this country? Before it all starts I worked in manual jobs before I worked in non-manual work. I did a manual job even recently before I returned to a white collar construction job.

Sally Davenport's picture
Thu, 22/11/2012 - 15:48

Its the, "we're doomed" future my darling RickY that concerns me although both of us probably "don't like it up 'em," attitude some of our politicians have to sticking one up on the opposition without considering what's best for children.

Having oodles of UK kids speaking pseudo Latin or the lost language of Atlantis or having a PhD in the humanities while they pick cabbages for India or pull apples for Brazil in ten years time will not be the outcome as those jobs will be done by robots. So will we have a huge underclass of unemployed, hungry, desperate young people taking the streets?

Eat your heart out Cromwell,warts and all as more protest and revolution could be round the corner unless we give our youngest generations a fair chance of a reasonable future.

Sally Davenport's picture
Thu, 22/11/2012 - 15:52


You are absolutely fantastic and lets hope some of this sticks in the peanuts of the tory DfE sneaks reading this.

Thank you x

Sally Davenport's picture
Thu, 22/11/2012 - 15:52


You are absolutely fantastic and lets hope some of this sticks in the peanuts of the tory DfE sneaks reading this.

Regards xxx

Sally Davenport's picture
Thu, 22/11/2012 - 15:53


You are absolutely fantastic.
- and lets hope some of this sticks in the peanuts of the tory DfE sneaks reading this.

Regards xxx

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 22/11/2012 - 16:04

Ricky - I'd be very interested in a link to the 1960 manufacturing output figures and those of 2007. I was around in the 1960s (you may not have been) but I remember thousands of people in my local area were employed by large manufacturers of such things as electrical equipment, engines, machine tools, car parts, cement, even things like lids for jars. Many of the larger firms took on apprentices every year who did on-the-job training combined with day-release and evening classes leading to prestigious City and Guilds qualifictions. There were so many apprentices that two of the firms had their own building to house them - smaller employers arranged "digs".

Most have now gone or been reduced substantially in size. The apprenticeships declined decades ago.

So, evidence please.

Sally Davenport's picture
Fri, 23/11/2012 - 10:28

Ben, What's your connection to WLFS? x

Sally Davenport's picture
Thu, 22/11/2012 - 16:34

Yes Ricky please do so.

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 23/11/2012 - 01:15

Well we are without hope if there is nothing you can ask offer of your own understanding. Try world trade, technological automisation of manual processes (=efficiency), capital intensive v labour intensive industry, relatively larger growth of services v manufacturing, decline of Imperial mercantile policy - all covered in my 1989 Geography GCSE.

Thank goodness for schools such as WLFS which will deliver numerate and literate people from all social classes able to choose hard subjects such as engineering or Latin.

Cabbage picking is even worthwhile but if Labour get back in that won't happen it will it? Because manual work is only for Brazilians and Indians according to you, right?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 23/11/2012 - 10:21

I'm not sure you really want to follow the German system. Don't they segregate the academic sheep from the non-academic goats at an early age (10 in most Lander, 12 in Berlin and Brandenburg), pack the brightest of to the Gymnasium to study for the Abitur... and thence to university, while the middle-attainers go to the Realschule and the low attainers are segregated in the Hauptschule.

Hardly the comprehensive dream, is it?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 23/11/2012 - 10:10

You want evidence for what should be general knowledge. I expect soon you'll be wanting evidence the world isn't flat. But heck, OK, here goes:

The future of UK manufacturing (2009)

Page 6:

Long before the onset of the current downturn, there was a widespread perception that the manufacturing sector in the UK was either already dead, or soon would be. This is not true….. Strip out the facts from the fallacies, and the truth is that the real value of UK manufacturing output has increased in 35 out of the past 50 years, and as the graph below proves, 2007 was a record year for UK manufacturing production:

The graph referred to shows UK Manufacturing Gross Value Added standing at just below £80 Billion in 1959 (at 2007 prices) and at just under £160 billion in 2007, demonstrating a real terms doubling of manufacturing output between 1959 and 2007.

The PwC report notes the perception you record Janet, and comments thus:

employment in the sector has been shrinking, as a result of significant and essential productivity improvements, which are in fact a ‘good news’ story for the sector.

Meanwhile, the services sector has been growing at an even faster rate, perhaps generating a perception amongst those who don’t look at the detail that manufacturing has been in absolute, rather than merely relative, decline. This isn’t so.

Sally Davenport's picture
Fri, 23/11/2012 - 10:26

Ben, you're a naughty boy. No, I think you are more than that; pathetic.

Picking cabbages pays sh*t money and is back-breaking work. You cannot make a career out of it and have a reasonable standard of living in the UK regardless of your country of origin. Please don't go down that route of nefarious insinuation. I'm a humanist and don't always pay that much attention to recently formed state borders by colonial bullyboys. I can't tell you how angry I am when I see anybody being paid a pittance and being taken advantage because they are from overseas and seen to be vulnerable. I suppose I just love humanity and don't have much time for those who constantly wish to stereotype or pigeon-hole people. So grow up!

And that work will eventually dry-up anyway with new technologies and intelligent mechanisations.

Now I've got over that Ben, I have personal experience of a time going back to the 1980s when British manufacturing and engineering expertise was still the best in the world. In fact, I can remember when it was the British that had to travel to Germany to teach the Germans. And why were we world-class back then...because we had the best apprenticeships...some of which took longer than to become a doctor.

But all this amazing expertise died-off very quickly,due to short term Tory thinking and these brilliant workers found their skills not wanted in the UK and took on jobs in the post office or driving (RickY!) white vans.

But a decade later, it was German companies who came back to the UK to try to track down this expertise that had been thrown to the dogs by previous Tory governments.
Now it is German companies that do this highly paid and needed work on a global basis with now just a few old English boys advising them (compared to the thousands).

(I write at speed, forgive me)

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 22/11/2012 - 15:54

Sally - I forgot to add: in Germany the apprenticeship system is seen as part of the transition between school and adult work. An engineering apprentice, for example, undertakes complementary studies which might include learning languages and accounts. The emphasis is on a rounded experience.

It is unlikely that Germans would expect school leavers to enter the workplace fully-trained with the skills and qualifications already in place to do a particular job and thereby reduce dependence on skilled foreign labour.

The long-term success of apprenticeships in the UK depends of UK businesses ensuring a wider variety of high-quality apprenticeships.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 23/11/2012 - 11:07

Sally - extra information: it's important to remember that Germany's apprenticeship system starts once pupils have left schools. Pointing out that Germany's apprenticeship system is good doesn't imply support for Germany's selective education system which was criticised by the UN for perpetuating social inequalities. The OECD's "Education at a Glance 2011" found that the best-performing education systems in the world tended to be the most equitable and didn't segregate children according to academic ability or by virtue of where they lived.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 23/11/2012 - 17:05

Ricky - thanks for the requested evidence about manufacturing output. I was pleasantly surprised that output in 2007 was so high. However, this isn't translated into employment which is the point I was attempting to make (badly): in 1980 manufacturing accounted for 1 in 4 of all UK jobs, in 2008 that figure had fallen to 1 in 10 (page 7). That was why I said I was interested in the evidence - what a pity you provided it accompanied by sarcasm.

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