A curriculum for life
by Matt Grist
Today’s announcement that over three thousand vocational qualifications are to be stripped of their ‘equivalence’ to GCSEs is to be applauded. This is a long overdue culling of useless qualifications that possess neither labour market value nor allow for progress in further and higher education. Today’s announcement is also a welcome rejection of the English tendency to over-specialise educational options too early – young people should be training for careers and lives, not specific jobs.
All the best education systems in the world do not specialise early and we should be no different. The idea that such specialisation ‘engages’ young people who are not ‘academic’ is mistaken. First of all, many more young people could obtain a better ‘academic’ education than currently do and that they do not is down to poor teaching and low expectations rather than some inherent weakness in the English child’s mind. Second, can you imagine how dull a class on ‘basic office skills’ would be? This is hardly ‘engagement’.
The culling of low-quality vocational qualifications is happening against the background of a review of the National Curriculum. Thankfully, that review is going slowly, so that it might put in place something lasting. What is emerging is that the Department for Education is going to raise expectations for all pupils around a core of crucial subjects – the Ebac is probably a placeholder for the New Curriculum, although the latter will undoubtedly be smaller than the former – but will slim down considerably the rest of the mandatory curriculum.
And there does seem to be consensus on a smallish core curriculum, lots of freedom for schools to develop a distinctive school rather than national curriculum, and the need to let balanced curricula lead qualification choices rather than the other way round. What there is less consensus on is how to create an environment in which such freedom is not just quashed by performance measures. To that end we need the DfE to be brave and only publish a single value-added measure across a range of 8 GCSEs, with scores calibrated individually against three ability groups. That way we could judge schools on how well they do for every single pupil.
But one thing that also seems an important complement to a slimmed down national curriculum is the re-empowering of Ofsted to judge schools in the round, rather than primarily on measurable data. More emphasis on Ofsted inspection and more emphasis by Ofsted on schools offering a balanced curriculum for all pupils would do much to get us to where we want to be. Much more than performance measures, I suspect.