Grammars or Plumbers: What’s Education For?

August 05, 2022, 2:47 PM GMT+0

On the face of it it’s hard to think of a more unlikely pair of political twins than Tony Blair and the woman who is regarded as a certainty to be our next prime minister, Liz Truss. But they have at least one thing in common. When Blair was asked what his priority in government would be he replied: “Education, education, education”. When Truss was asked a similar question she replied that she wants to be “the education prime minister”. Something else they share is that they were both deeply unhappy with the state of education as they found it. But that’s where their similarities end. Their recipes for improving education for our children could scarcely be more different. Whose side are you on?

Both Blair and Truss would agree on one fundamental: too many of our children are being served badly by the system. And it’s not only the experts saying that. It’s the children themselves. A survey of 10,000 young people in ten countries, published this week by the charity Theirworld, found that almost half of the UK students questioned believed they ended their education without the skills they needed to compete for decent jobs in today's world. What most frustrated them was the "outdated, old-fashioned curriculum". That bleak judgement was shared by fewer students in much poorer countries including Nicaragua and Nigeria when they were asked the same question. As for British parents, more than 65 per cent of those who were polled by You Gov said the current system put too much emphasis on exams and did not prepare pupils for life. About a third of children do badly at GCSEs. Critics of the system say the effect is that many of those children see themselves as failures.

The Office for National Statistics published more worrying data in a report this week. It said that children who had grown up in poverty went on to earn a fifth less than those whose parents could afford to send them to private schools. The average salary at the age of 30 for those who had qualified for free school meals was £18,847. For those who had gone to private schools it was £40,317.

The Blair government had been in power for only a year when it passed the 'School Standards and Framework Act' which made it illegal to open any new grammar schools. It also made it possible to close down existing grammars by allowing people who lived in their catchment areas to vote in a ballot to close them down if they so wished. Truss, by contrast, wants to see more grammars and more of the brightest children from state schools getting into the top universities. She says Oxford and Cambridge would have to grant an interview to every sixth former with three A*s at A-level. And she has also promised to replace failing academies with a new wave of free schools and improve maths and literacy standards.

Her critics say her proposals are wrong-headed and unworkable. Those critics include Alice Thomson of The Times, who calls them “as elitist as Rishi Sunak's £450 Prada shoes.” She points out that only 5 per cent of state-funded children go to grammar schools and “even with the blessing of No 10 it is unlikely that more than a handful of new schools will open because there just isn't the cash for them.” As Thomson points out, the number of students who manage three A*s at A-level is tiny: fewer than one per cent of those sitting the exams in 2019. That adds up to a total of 3,000 children. And only 1.18 per cent of the sixth formers applying to higher education go to Oxford or Cambridge.

Thomson is not alone in ridiculing the Truss proposal for forcing the two universities to interview the very brightest. They argue that they’d do that anyway, so why interfere? And if they were forced to interview many more, the system would be swamped. But even if were possible for Oxbridge to do it, say the critics, it would be wrong. There may very well be extremely bright and motivated youngsters who happened to have an off day when they sat a particular A-level but might well do brilliantly at an Oxbridge interview.

Sir Simon Jenkins of The Guardian objects on the grounds that it would “cement the elitist assumption that Oxbridge should be further assisted to cream off the top achievers each year to attain ever greater heights of academic quality and status.” Jenkins acknowledges that universities do have a role in social engineering and should try to widen their social base. But, he writes, “That applies to them all. In some parts of Britain they are the most potent agency of the ailing levelling-up agenda. They bring creativity and talent, public money and graduate employment to regions from which they have been drained over the past half century. It is these places that need the brightest students if they are to compete nationally and internationally. The government should not seek to suck them dry of a few hundred A* students a year to further boost the egos of Oxford and Cambridge.”

Oxford and Cambridge, he says, are focusing ever more of their efforts on postgraduates and research: “It is possible that eventually they may even discontinue undergraduate teaching altogether. For the time being policy should not discourage bright school-leavers from attending their local university or other centres of excellence, let alone to promote Oxbridge elitism.”

One of the most obvious differences between Oxbridge colleges and the state education system is that they are rich – in some cases extremely rich - and state schools are not. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has been crunching the numbers on education budgets. It concludes that spending per pupil in 2024 will be 3 per cent below what it was in 2010 levels in real terms after factoring in a rise in teacher salaries, plus higher energy and food costs. It compares that with spending on health, which will have increased by around 40 per cent during that same period.

If there is one certainty in this debate it is that the next prime minister will not be able to pluck desperately needed cash from some mythical magic money tree. The Bank of England could scarcely have painted a bleaker picture of the state of the UK economy this week. We are headed, it said, for a protracted recession. Inflation, it forecast, will surge above 13 per cent and that will cause the worst squeeze on living standards for more than sixty years.

The Times Education Commission has spent a year interviewing experts around the world and has produced a 12-point plan which, it suggests, does not necessarily depend on vast sums of cash being poured into our educational system. Some of the most successful approaches involve using artificial intelligence and prioritise inventiveness, analysis, collaboration and wellbeing over mindless fact learning. The commission found it has worked for countries such as Singapore and Estonia. But Ms Truss might not find it easy to sell that concept to sceptical parents in this country.

Another approach advocated by many – including Tony Blair’s son Euan – is to accept that education need not be about preparing children to pass exams but instead enabling them to earn a decent living doing jobs that require a different set of skills. Vocational training. Apprenticeships. Blair has become a very rich young man through the success of Multiverse, a company he set up to help young people find apprenticeships, to help them become plumbers or electrician or carpenters or a multitude of jobs in the technical sector.

Blair told the Commission that concerns over university tuition fees, student debt and graduate employment had made vocational training increasingly attractive to wealthier pupils.

“It’s a shift,” he said. “Over the last few years, the sort of people applying to do apprenticeships has changed quite a lot. You’ve had private schools really embrace it and see an opportunity. It’s become much more acceptable to middle-class families and middle-class parents.” In other words, apprenticeships have started to pass “the middle-class dinner party test”, with prestigious placements more sought after than some undergraduate degrees.

A YouGov poll for The Times found that 42 per cent of people thought that an apprenticeship was a better preparation than university for the future. That’s seven times the number who thought a degree was the best start to adult life. Parents were evenly split on whether they would prefer their child to take a more academic or vocational route, with 37 per cent favouring a degree and 36 per cent an apprenticeship.

Multiverse has more applications for every place than Oxford University and the number of private-school pupils has almost quadrupled over five years, although it remains small, at about 4 per cent. Blair said: “The first time I realised that we were heading in the right direction was when I got, from professional colleagues, people sending me messages on LinkedIn saying, ‘My son or daughter would love to go and do one of your apprenticeships. How do they get to do it?’ I thought, ‘OK, this is really interesting’.”

So where do you stand? Do you share Liz Truss’s enthusiasm for more grammar schools and putting more pressure on Oxford and Cambridge to accept poorer students? Or do you think she’s offering an answer to the wrong question and, instead, we should regard an apprenticeship as equal to a degree? And what about your own career? Do you ever wonder whether you made the wrong decision when you were a youngster and do you now wish you’d done an apprenticeship?

Let us know.

Image: Getty

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