Turning back the clock – education policy in the UK

At the start of the week I was working in a successful school.  According to the lead statistic in the UK, the number of pupils getting A* to C grades in their GCSE exams, we were doing well above average and certainly in Design Technology we were achieving great things.  This week we are clearly failing with a pass rate somewhere around 13%.  What a disaster!.  Well not really, the school is still exactly the same friendly, popular school that it was, the staff are still the same dedicated and enthusiastic professionals that they were last week, the pupils are still great.  All that has changed is that the Government have moved the goal posts.

Anyone working in education in the UK cannot have failed to notice the furore surrounding the introduction of the so called English Baccalaureate. (If I had anything to do with the excellent and highly regarded International Baccalaureate I would be very unhappy that the name had been hijacked for such a  dubious purpose.)  Not a new course, not even a new exam just a new way for the government to measure success.  While declaring their intention of giving schools and teachers more say in how the curriculum is organised and delivered they have in one easy move hamstrung the education system in this country.  The EB as we will call it, make up your own wording to match the acronym, consists of English, maths, science, a humanity and a modern foreign language although apparently Biblical Hebrew may be allowed in the last category.

What this clearly amounts to is a compulsory core curriculum, now that may or may not be a bad thing of itself but the effect that it is having and will have on our schools could be disastrous.  All over the country headteachers are busy pointing out the inadequacy of the new system on the one hand while furiously calculating how they can raise their standing in this new game with new rules.  Teachers are trawling their databases for information on pupils who are about to opt for their examination subjects to identify who ‘is capable’ of getting the EB and who is not.  Hang on, does that mean we are about to set off a two tier system of education?  Yes it most certainly does!  Different colour option forms have been given out to pupils, blue if you could make the EB,  a rather mucky pink colour if you don’t have a chance.  Irony of ironies, the justification for this is that it will allow more children from poorer backgrounds to go to university.  Nobody has quite managed to explain why but it seems to be a rather crude swipe at some schools who have played the previous government game of racking up points for their pupils rather too enthusiastically by entering them for subjects that universities don’t like to see as entrance qualifications.

So rather than sort out the root problem Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, has overnight reversed the last twenty years of curriculum development.  Setting out his stall as a return to traditional academic subjects he has set English education on a course back to a system that was arguably not so very good in it’s day, which most people estimate  to be the 1950’s.  I can’t quite work out whether this is a product of weak thinking or a very clever way of reintroducing a bipartite system.  In either case the problems remain for schools to wrestle with.  There are two key issues that worry me and I would suggest should worry everyone with an interest in our future;  the practical and the theoretical.

In my school, a specialist technology college, we have developed a broad and balanced curriculum that really works for our pupils.  Both Design Technology and the Creative Arts departments do amazing things with and for our pupils who achieve great things, not only in terms of exam success but in terms of individual growth.  Our direction of travel has been influenced by a local university college with a strong vision of digital creative technology as a driver for economic growth in what is a picturesque but economically challenged part of the country.  The practicality of the EB suggests that Design Technology will have to fight it’s corner as an optional subject along with creative arts and a host of others that have real value for some of our pupils.  I would argue that Design Technology should be part of the core in a world where technology is so often part of the problem and part of the solution and where design as an activity taps human creativity and promote economic gromth.

The theoretical issue is in a way even more worrying.  The last ten years or so have seen a huge leap in our understanding of how the human brain works and, in the UK at least, an increasing awareness that we desperately need to harness the creativity of our population.  Michael Gove seems to have fallen for the simplistic notion that traditional subjects are subjects where higher order thinking occurs and are hence of more worth.  I took considerable stick at a conference recently where I revealed that my first degree was BEd Handicraft.  (Don’t misunderstand this, I am very proud of my craft skills but the title was outdated even in the 70’s)  Michael Gove had just made a speech in which he referred to handicraft in schools, is this an indication of how informed he is about education in the UK?  In a statement complied by a Design Technology team and quoted in the most recent review of Design Technology in England, “Education for a Technologically Advanced Nation”  (OFSTED 2008)   “Design and technology is not the recent invention of educationalists. Since the time when man (sic) first realised that he could improve the condition of his existence, design and technology activity has enabled him to progress. It is the first thing archaeologists look for and throughout history it has supported every human activity. Today it creates wealth to provide the services our society needs.” (I would love to credit the authors directly so if you are out there let me know.) Michael Gove seems to be doing his best to make sure that we are no longer a technologically advance nation, it is to be hoped that teachers across the country will enagage the wider community in the debate, stand up for what they believe is right for our young people and give the EB the cold shoulder.

Geraint Wilton

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