An important day for education

There are a number of education stories reported in the papers today. Perhaps the most eye-catching is Kenneth Baker’s proposals to roll out a much larger number of technical schools for 14-18 year-olds. The Independent for one praises the scheme highly – though the sceptic in me seems to remember that he tried something similar about three decades ago.

That said, I think it is a very sensible proposal: some other European countries have had such institutions for many years; in the case of Switzerland, well over half of students head in that direction at 14. Switzerland is known for the quality of its workmanship and services; it has no qualms about accepting that many of its young people are not academically-inclined, and it provides for them accordingly, with industry playing its civic part and supporting high-quality technical education; Germany does something similar. The corollary is, the academic 30% or so are allowed to pursue high-quality academic education in institutions dedicated to that purpose. Some of the teachers in such institutions also work in local universities: I have  accompanied a Swiss teacher while he taught secondary students in the morning, then got on the tram and headed for the local university to teach final-year undergraduates in the afternoon.

It is essential that Baker’s programme delivers what it promises, and is not hijacked by the prejudice that has destroyed  other attempts at widespread vocational education in this country. We also need at least one technical school in every town, so that they are both available to all students nationwide and come to be accepted by the general populace.

The government has also announced that the 5 A*-C benchmark is to be scrapped. Not before time: at last someone is getting wise to the perverse incentives that league tables present to schools. I expect some anguish from those who have built their careers round such targets – but the gaming of the system has to stop, for the benefit of teachers and pupils alike. Whether the new measure will be any better remains to be seen – the cynic in me says that any target is open to gaming by people who have interests in doing so.

Dominic Cummings has been at it again. The Times reports that his open essay proposes that mediocre teachers would do better reading from scripts that ‘reinventing square wheels’. He may have a point when he claims that there are far too few highly talented individuals out there to make a real difference to education across the board; teaching talent is not a matter of high qualifications alone. However, he also needs to consider whether the problem is simply that the wrong things are being expected of the teaching profession. Especially if 70% of outcomes are heritable, as he seems to suspect, maybe teachers aren’t as bad as he thinks – they just have less influence than the system likes to believe.

I’m not convinced that Direct Instruction is the way forward; employing people with proven intelligence (not necessarily the same as academic qualifications) and then letting them follow their instincts (albeit with support) with their pupils might work even better. But that, as we know wouldn’t be measurable.


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