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Saturday, 16 February, 2002, 00:09 GMT
Labour's continental plans for education

First the Labour government took on the idea of the comprehensive school. No more "bog standard" comprehensives was the cry.

In their place have come a variety of specialist schools, beacon schools and city academies. Meanwhile the grammar schools have remained.


Labour has adopted the croissants and bratwurst approach to education

Now Labour is challenging the examination which embodies the egalitarian philosophy of comprehensive education, the GCSE.

This week's proposals for changing 14 to 19 education prepare the way for the brightest pupils to by-pass GCSEs altogether.

The vision of the policy advisers, who toil in Downing Street on what they call the education "project", is of a school system that is the very opposite of one type of school and one type of exam for all.

As the government sees it the "one size fits all" approach has had its day.

Radical shift

In its attitude to schools, the Labour government has shown itself to be very much "New Labour".

But those who see it as either a return to the past, or the stealing of Tory policies, are surely missing the point.

There is, certainly, a radical shift taking place.

Yet the changes do not amount to a return to the grammar school/secondary modern or O-level/CSE divide. Rather we are seeing a shift from comprehensive to continental ways.

Labour has adopted the croissants and bratwurst approach to education. Never mind the Euro, there is some real convergence, or European integration, going on in our schools.

Primary language learning

It was appropriate that the changes to education for 14 to 19 year olds was accompanied by a push to increase foreign language learning for children from the age of seven.

Of course, the timing was partly intended to assuage the anger over the dropping of compulsory foreign languages after 14.

Yet it also brought England into line with countries such as Germany, France and Italy where foreign languages are taught from the early stages of primary school.

This is only the start of a shift towards the European model of education. Just as in soccer, the French and the Germans have got there before us. Now we too are trying to abandon conventional tactics for a more flexible, skills-based formation.

11 years

In British education, the great dividing line was at age 11.

Before comprehensive schools came along, children were divided into sheep and goats by the Eleven Plus examination.

classroom
The changes will give pupils greater flexibility
The paths after this were quite separate, leading to different types of schools and different examinations.

While Britain wrestled with these problems, accentuated by an education system which also largely divided along class lines, most of our European neighbours had a more flexible school structure.

Yes, they had different types of schools for pupils of different aptitudes. But they had far greater flexibility in their system, certainly to the age of 14.

In the Netherlands, for example, you go to one of three different types of secondary school but you cover a similar core curriculum to age 14, allowing easier transfer between them if you discover you are on the wrong pathway.

Britain's grammar/secondary modern system was undermined by the unreliability of the selection method and the failure to value any educational route other than the one leading from grammar school to university.

Vocational education

Despite many efforts and initiatives, all attempts to give parity of esteem to vocational courses have failed. Most parents, and I suspect many employers, don't know - or really care - what an NVQ or GNVQ stands for.

pupil pouring molten metal
Vocational qualifications have often been downplayed
So having GCSEs in vocational subjects, and avoiding the temptation to give them a separate name, is a master-stroke.

Dropping the "vocational" label may stop them being seen as second-class while the subject name on the certificate - be it engineering, manufacturing or hotel and tourism - makes it plain what it is about.

At the same time, it seems sensible to recognise that by 14 not all young people want to go the same route.

Allowing greater flexibility to take vocational subjects seems sensible, provided they all continue to develop the basic, core skills needed in any job: Numeracy, literacy and the ability to use information technology.

Ideally one would add the ability to communicate in another language to this list of the irreducible core curriculum but, at present, that is not realistic.

Starting languages at seven, rather than requiring them from 14 to 16, seems a far better bet for improving the nation's language skills.

Bright pupils

The "fast-track" proposals for the brightest students to by-pass GCSEs look like a pragmatic approach to the over-crowding of examinations.

There is a logic to regarding 10 GCSEs as redundant when students will go on to take AS- and A-levels.

If they can by-pass some GCSEs then it might be possible - at last - to genuinely broaden the range of subjects taken at a higher level (the introduction of AS-levels has scarcely achieved this).

But there is a risk too. If we start to say that GCSEs are not suitable for the brightest students we risk devaluing them for everyone else.

If independent or grammar schools start to abandon the GCSE and instead use the new freedom to produce students with perhaps 3 or 4 AS-levels plus a handful of A-levels (the International Baccalaureate by another name), then students at other schools might start to lose out in university admissions.

Maybe the government can pull this off.

The flexibility of different educational routes is welcome but can we defy the "British disease" and avoid one route, and one set of qualifications, being seen as inferior to another?


We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

12 Feb 02 | UK Education
12 Feb 02 | UK Education
11 Feb 02 | UK Education
12 Feb 02 | UK Education
Internet links:


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