Labour wants to label pupils as non-academic at 14

Roger Titcombe's picture
The Independent on Sunday (9 June) has a double page spread on Labour's big idea for education.

Stephen Twigg sets out his plan for 'gold standard' vocational courses provided by FE Colleges, for students that do not wish to go to university. This is admirable and long overdue. Too many FE Colleges have for too long been pretending to be universities and have lost the plot in terms of what they should be doing.

The problem lies in the clear implication that school students would be divided into academic/non-academic streams at 14. This is to be a 'Tech Bacc' "to give less academically able pupils a meaningful qualification".

This was first floated by Ed Milliband at the last Labour Party Conference, so Twigg's announcement appears to suggest that this policy is being embedded in plans for the 2015 manifesto.

In my view this policy drift would be a disastrous retreat to the era when 'non-academic' pupils attending secondary modern schools ceased general education at 14, compared to 'academic' pupils in grammar schools who took GCEs at 16.

I wrote about this in my New Statesman article.

These are the key sections from the article.

"What does ‘non-academic’ mean? Is it to be based on the IQ type Cognitive Ability Tests widely used by the frequently praised Harris, Mossbourne and other Academies for regulating their admissions?"

"These tests are certainly very good predictors of performance in academic subjects at GCSE and A Level and their use gives such Academies control over their pupil admission profile crucially denied to their much denigrated LA school predecessors. If such tests are not used then how are the criteria for dividing pupils at 14 to be decided? How is ‘academic’ to be defined and measured? The results of the cognitive ability tests used by Academies to regulate their admissions display the classic bell curve continuous ‘normal distribution’. There is no distinctive level of performance in such tests, or any other tests, that could validly divide a population into academic and non-academic streams at any prescribed level let alone the 50th percentile (proportion as a percentage) as Twigg appears to be suggesting. All you can say is that pupils with lower scores generally find academic studies more difficult. But does this mean they shouldn’t be allowed access to them? Pupils are ‘turned off’ learning by inappropriate and undifferentiated teaching methods, not by the subjects themselves. What about technology and the arts? Are these subjects academic or vocational? Are we to assume that our most academically able pupils should be directed away from cooking, dance, drama and art, or that less academic pupils don’t need to study and understand history, geography, literature, science and a foreign language? How should a ‘Jamie Oliver’ be directed at 14 years old?"

I also refer to this issue in my post here.

"The task of the education system should be to raise educational outcomes for all, so producing a better educated and more intelligent population at every level. What is wrong with having well educated plumbers, actors, motor mechanics, shop assistants, footballers, tennis players, care workers etc. as well as more broadly educated teachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers? Both requirements are achievable within a comprehensive school system provided all schools enjoy genuinely all-ability intakes of children."

Janet Downs has argued for the abolition of GCSEs in favour of an 18+ system. Is this what Twigg has in mind for his 'Tech Bacc'? Is the Tech Bacc to be an alternative to GCSE, A Levels or to a Degree? Is he wanting to reform the school curriculum, Further Education or Higher Education?

If he wants higher quality vocational education and training post 16 then I support him. This sounds like City & Guilds, HNC and HND (Higher National Certificate and Diploma) to me - a welcome development.

I oppose all vocationally specific teaching pre-16. There are simply much more important things to be doing in ensuring a truly high quality broad and balanced education for all.

Janet argues that abolishing GCSE would not mean streaming at 14. I don't think Twigg agrees with her. The CBI certainly doesn't.

Twigg wants to take us back to the grammar school/ secondary modern split, but at 14 instead of 11 and within the same school.

Gove really does want to raise academic standards for all, but he hasn't a clue how to do it and he doesn't realise that it is impossible within his league table driven, marketisation ideology.

Our education system faces a dire future.
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