Serving the forgotten half
by Matt Grist
Conservative MP Elizabeth Truss has published a report arguing that poorer students are being pushed into taking less academic subjects, harming their chances of progressing into higher education and employment. This report comes shortly after the Wolf Review recommended that vocational options be curtailed for 14-16 year-olds to no more than 20 per cent of the curriculum.
What these two reports have in common is a rejection of young people studying for useless qualifications at the expense of core ‘academic skills’. Demos’ recent report the Forgotten Half similarly argued for much more effort to be put into raising the literacy and numeracy skills of young people, including reading and numeracy recovery programmes at the beginning of Key Stage 4. As Andy Burnham argued last week, GCSE passes in maths and English should be achieved by the overwhelming majority.
In The Forgotten Half we found that a young person taking an apprenticeship at level 2 (‘equivalent’ to five good GCSEs) would likely only take level 1 NVQ ‘key skills’ components in literacy and numeracy, which lead to lower wages. GCSEs in English and maths on the other hand, are used by employers as a sifting mechanism and teach valuable skills, leading to substantial wage returns (10-15 per cent higher).
Part of the problem is that league tables drive schools to up their scores by pushing students into doing vocational subjects that have been deemed ‘equivalent’ to ‘traditional’ academic subjects by Ofqual and the QCDA, although FE and HE institutions, and employers, rarely agree. In the Forgotten Half we argue for objective advice to young people on which qualifications have value, as well as much more ambition about imparting core skills in literacy and numeracy to many more learners (e.g. insisting that maths GCSE be part of level 2 apprenticeships, rather than useless ‘key skills’ modules).
So both Professor Wolf and Elizabeth Truss are right to be concerned that young people study courses allowing for progression in education and the labour market. But it is important not to get into a vocational versus academic qualifications mindset. Rather, there should also be a focus on a healthy diversity of teaching methods and curricula that impart core academic skills in more practical and imaginative ways. Paragons of educational excellence such as South Korea, Finland and Hong Kong, all put great emphasis on core skills in English and maths, as well as diverse and creative pedagogies capable of motivating and teaching the widest spectrum of learners. What goes on in schools, between teachers and learners, matters and cannot be fixed by quotas for kinds of qualifications.