Academic focus driving students to quit A Levels

Roger Titcombe's picture
This is a very important story in the Independent of 21 January about a report from the 'Policy Exchange Think Tank'.First, the facts: students that have enrolled on academic A Levels are indeed dropping out in large numbers, around a third in some parts of the country.

Next, the usual wrong explanation that there is too much focus on academic studies in the UK. The report states, "Many students are suffering from the lack of an alternative to academic studies".

There is no such lack. Our local former FE College, which now has a fancy name, has huge numbers of such courses. The problem is that, as the Wolf report stated, they are of poor quality, are undemanding, have 100 percent pass rates and do not lead to good jobs. The reason why Polish plumbers are in such demand is that they have been better trained and educated.

In order to discover the real reason for the A Level drop out rate we need to know a lot more, and in the absence of such knowledge we have to speculate, so here goes.

First it is not because A Levels have got harder - the converse is the case.

Second, I predict that the highest drop-out rates are in the areas served by the most improved schools.

Third, I predict that those dropping out appeared to have the appropriate GCSE qualifications to take academic A Levels.

Fourth, I predict that they dropped out because they just couldn't understand what they were being taught.

I believe the reason for all of this is because English 16 year-olds are getting dimmer, and that the Flynn effect, whereby mean cognitive ability rises every year, has gone into reverse in England (and only in England). This latter is not speculation but has been shown to be true In England through the work of Michael Shayer and James Flynn himself. In fact it is worse than that because 11 year olds and 14 year-olds are getting dimmer too, despite decades of asonishing levels of year-on-year 'school improvement' based on KS2, KS3 and GCSE high stakes testing, and vast numbers of 'turned around' schools.

Why are our kids getting dimmer? Because the sort of teaching that saves heads jobs, keeps OfSTED at bay and creates miraculous school improvement, actually stunts children's educational development.

What sort of teaching is this? In a word 'behaviourism'. Think punishment and reward, performance related pay, business style managerialism, booster classes, drill and practise, kids in suits, army style discipline etc etc. It is teaching that promotes Kahneman's 'fast' System 1 thinking at the expense of 'slow' System 2 thinking.

Students are dropping out of academic A Levels because they lack the cognitive development to cope. Schools should be primarily about developing such ability (Piaget, Vygotsky etc). The pressure for school improvement has led to the discarding of such developmental approaches on an epic and truly disastrous scale, genuinely captured by international tests like PISA. Janet, you are wrong about this and Gove is right. It is the only thing he is right about.

This counter-intuitive argument is the basis of my forthcoming book. It is coming along, hindered mainly by my need to keep updating it to take account of the growing body of evidence, as in this report in the Independent.
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