john_cridland_cbi_chiefI have not always been a fan of the CBI’s approach to education. It is generally narrow, and contributes to the false idea that “education is for jobs” only, rather than the wider range of objectives that education is obviously for. They have also been for too long the lackeys of Tory policy on schooling, rather than thinking more widely. And they have not helped their cause by being critical of teachers when it has been the system that teachers have worked in that should draw their ire.

However, today, John Cridland, the director of said organisation, has launched an excellent and well-timed broadside at the shape and purpose of secondary education in Britain (well, England and wales, more specifically) and called for the abolition of GCSEs within the next 5-10 years. I agree, completely. They are an outdated, often facile and unhelpful qualification that have not served our children or our country at all well. We are virtually the only major education system still testing at 16, and the fact that I have half a dozen children in my Y6 maths set that could eat up a maths GCSE with few problems suggests that they are nowhere near challenging enough.

The second broadside, long overdue from employers, is to reaffirm the quality and purpose of vocational and technical education alongside that of an academic education. To dismantle this, we have to dismantle pretty much all of the last 1000 years of history, abolish feudalism and pretend the Norman invasion had not happened, so deeply rooted is our class system and attitudes in our education. Alternatively, we could copy the French, have a revolution to reestablish a common mindset and proceed from there. I don’t think there is one member of her majesty’s government that believes that a technical education is as good as an academic one. As Ken Robinson has often said, the whole of the western academic education system assumes that the pinnacle of achievement is a university professorship. It’s not, and should Mr Cameron have a leaky toilet, a sick child or a collapsed wall, a professorship in astrophysics will not be the qualification he is casting around for.

What is really interesting in Cridland’s argument is that he says that from the employers’ perspective, the failure of many young people to have the skills that employers need is an argument for broadening the curriculum, not for re-emphasising some mythical “basic skills”:

Non-academic routes should be rigorous and different to academic ones, but not second best. The lack of a strong vocational education at the moment means that many pupils are poorly served, as not all children are suited to a narrowly academic approach. For employers, it can mean that they have to carry out “remedial” work with young recruits to get them ready for the workplace. From the perspective of employers, the school system needs to teach skills beyond academic lessons, such as character and resilience. Debates about schools structure and exam reform are sterile if they aren’t linked to outcomes for young people. And that is a missing link in our system.

Amen to all that. There is a lot to say on this, principally around the approach that northern Europeans have taken to esteem technical education. A school that I have visited that gets this right completely (it is not alone in Holland, since the structure of secondary education is much sounder than ours) is the Stanislas College in Delft. We have much to learn in this area, but a lot of that learning will have to be drastic mental reprogramming of a whole educational system that favours the rich and middle class and despises plumbers.

Mr Cridland, keep talking.


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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