Perfect storm ahead – the Tory baccalaureate

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Robin Richardson

Review of The English Baccalaureate: a tangled web scrutinised edited by Trevor Fisher, 28pp, available free of charge from Viewpoint, PO Box 3599. Stafford ST16 9RD on receipt of a stamped addressed C5 envelope.

Educational changes are being introduced,’ wrote 22 professors of education in an open letter to the prime minister in November 2012, ‘which we believe will harm the prosperity of our nation and limit the life-chances of our young people. A perfect storm is brewing.’  They said further that the storm, if it is not prevented, will ‘engulf our schools … and seriously damage our economy’. The professors were referring to plans for the re-fashioning of educational qualifications at the age of 16+, and for changes in the pedagogy and relationships through which the curriculum is taught and learnt. Broadly the same robust criticisms and severe warnings may be made of the government’s follow-up plans to re-fashion qualifications at 18+. 

The professors’ letter is quoted at length in a short, passionate, focused and  determined pamphlet published by the Symposium on Sustainable Schools (SOSS). It contains contributions by Michael Bassey, Margot Brown, Trevor Fisher, Bethan Marshall, Richard Pring and Richard Sidley, and is edited by Trevor Fisher. All the authors have substantial experience of the initial training and continuing professional development of teachers, and most have published research and reflection over the years on the creation and effects of educational policies.

The authors identify several different currents in the perfect storm which they see brewing. Each of these currents is serious and dangerous in itself. When combined with each other, and when interacting with each other in vicious circles and spirals, they become increasingly more threatening, and increasingly unpredictable and unmanageable. It is vital, argues the Symposium on Sustainable Schools, that the so-called reforms currently taking place should be halted, and that there should be widespread consultation and thoughtful deliberation before they are pursued any further. The warnings and concerns outlined in this pamphlet have been expressed by many other bodies, including most recently the education select committee. Also all the teacher unions have issued warnings, as have various individuals prominent in the performing and visual arts, for example Andrew Lloyd Webber in the House of Lords and Jez Butterworth, Antony Gormley, David Hare, Nicholas Serota and Mark Wallinger quoted in the press.

In summary, the pamphlet’s concerns are about the following currents in the gathering perfect storm:

1)   failure to recognise the importance of the arts, design and technology, citizenship, religious studies and physical education in the make-up of a well educated young person

2)   failure therefore to recognise the importance of these features in the nature and benchmarks of a good or outstanding school

3)   de-emphasising of soft skills such as resilience, creativity, consideration, readiness and ability to cooperate and work in a team, and care and responsibility towards others and the public good

4)   failure, as a consequence of these three points, to prepare young people for taking part in the economy and in cultural and political life, with gravely detrimental effects both for themselves and for wider society

5)   increased control of the content, methodology and assessment of education by central government, combined with lack of consultation and scrutiny involving and engaging a wide spread of interests

6)   the emergence of a three-tier system of education reminiscent of, but even more rigid and damaging than, the grammar school/secondary modern school dichotomy, and the academic/vocational dualism, of the 1950s and 60s

7)   increasing fears and insecurities in the teaching profession generated by high-stakes testing and related league tables

8)   the likelihood that the scope and extent of higher education will be drastically reduced, with consequent disadvantage for hundreds of thousands of young people, and for the national economy and culture as a whole.

The people most likely to be disadvantaged by these various currents, and by the gathering storm as a whole, will be disproportionately from low-income households, from certain minority communities, and from amongst young people who are disabled by having a special educational need. They will be especially severe where these three dimensions – low income, ethnicity and disability – intersect.  Also gender relationships are likely to seriously damaged, with boys and young men losing out in certain respects, and girls and young women in certain other respects.

Dangers are compounded by the proposed changes to examination boards and methods of assessment, by cavalier disregard for the importance of trials and pilots, and by the inevitable loss of staff expertise and specialisms in schools and institutions of higher education. They are further compounded by Orwellian obfuscations and rhetoric. For example, the government criticises the previous administration for what it calls micro-management but is itself intervening much more than the previous government ever did in the internal and day-to-day affairs of schools and colleges. It says it wants ‘world-class’ education and to compete with other countries, but provides no credible evidence for its claim that the new baccalaureate will in any way be relevant to this. It says it wants schools to be ‘free’ of local authority control, but is making them subject instead to structures of central control which are immensely less accountable and transparent than local authorities ever were.

Most certainly the headlong rush towards the Tory bacc (short, in its pronunciation, for both backwoods and backwards) must be halted, and each of its separate components needs to be carefully scrutinised. So must the way the currents may interact into a perfect storm. At the same time, alternatives must be proposed. For example, what would be the ingredients of, as the term might be, a modern international baccalaureate (MIB) at 16+?  How could the MIB be most appropriately decoupled from the benchmarking of schools and how can league tables be scrapped without sacrificing accountability? What would be the MIB’s relationship with access to education and training after the age of 16?

Such questions will no doubt be investigated and discussed in further publications from the Symposium on Sustainable Schools. In the meanwhile, this initial pamphlet is invaluable for raising them. As mentioned at the head of this review, it can be obtained free of charge, as long as stocks last, from Viewpoint, PO Box 3599. Stafford ST16 9RD on receipt of a stamped addressed C5 envelope.


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