O levels, GCSEs and vocational qualifications


        The abolition of the O level and the CSE was designed to eliminate division in education at age 16. Many welcomed the revolution, delaying dividing pupils into an academic elite and the rest until A levels or university application time.

         Others disliked the changes. The advent of more high scoring GCSE pupils in sixth forms increased the pressure to change the A level. Out went some of the “tough” two year study programmes ending in  a set of strenuous exam papers. In came more of the modular courses, where you could study and be examined a few steps at a time. In arts subjects out went some of the free ranging essays, invitations to display your erudition or ignorance, and in came right answers and multiple choice. Teachers now spend more time teaching exam techniques and less time teaching the subject. Even at elite universities some students expect to be told what points they ought to be making in their answers, and want to know the details of the “scoring system” for the exams.

      So what do you all think of the experiment? Did GCSE and new A levels work? Did they end the unpleasant divisions? Did they produce a more democratic and modern education? Or did they dumb down standards?

       Defenders of the old system of O and A levels say that they were great for the intellectual elite. Others  might agree they were no good for all those who ended up with none of either. The defenders say the need was to find a convincing set of qualifications for those who did not wish to  specialise in academic subjects examined the old O and A level way. Those in favour of inclusion would say the GSCE bridged the gap for more children.

        Whichever view you take, there remains the big problem of what do we offer children who are not going to do well at either GCSE or current vocational qualifications?  The old O and A level was fine for the academically  successful. Technical schools were fine for those who wanted to be serious technicians of varying kinds.How good was education for the rest, and how could it be better?

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  1. Alte Fritz
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    My son has just finished A levels in traditional “proper” subjects which seemed to me pretty taxing and not dumbed down from my own experiences forty years back. What has seemed wooden, though, is the business of teaching technique as much as content and style. You cannot blame them when so much (for school and pupil) hangs on league tables and scores.

    The exam system continues to do nothing for those at the bottom. It does not offer much of a ladder out of dependency. For the middle, there are soft options in non subjects which prove nothing of the candidates aptitude or ability.

    I recall a system which hung all on one paper; if you had a bad day, too bad. Today, there are opportunities for retakes which are a mockery the process of examination of learning.

    What we have is not much good for the bottom half, not very informative for employers, and near meaningless for universities. It is not a good place to start.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      You’re only allowed one retake per module for GCSEs, A-levels, and degrees so it’s not a mockery of the process of examination of learning. Would you also prohibit people from retaking their driving test if they don’t pass the first time?

      • lifelogic
        Posted June 23, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

        Interestingly I read that Sir Paul Nurse, PRS geneticist and cell biologist. who was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine had to take French O level 6 times before he got a place at University. So that would be him out then. Mind you why on earth they wanted him to have French to study science perhaps for the formal supper menus in hall I assume!

        He is a bit dodgy on the Green issue though so perhaps they were right.

        • Mark
          Posted June 24, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

          I certainly read academic papers written in other languages as part of my degree studies. Not everything is published in English. I recall having to demonstrate an ability to translate from at least three languages (including Latin) as part of the entry requirements. German used to be mandatory for those studying Chemistry or Physics because so much original research was in those languages: Annalen der Physik is still a premier journal.

        • Bazman
          Posted June 25, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

          Ah! Nurse and Delingpole. A bit embarrassing for Delingpole as when questioned as to whether he would go with the scientific consensus if faced with or a life threatening illness or some off beam quack theory by Nurse, got himself into a bit of a tizz didn’t he? Do tell the use your the reason for this comment lifelogic…He’s a bit dodgy on the green issue? A likely story if Google Nurse and Delingpole…

          • lifelogic
            Posted June 26, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

            He certainly seem to believe some of the wilder claims of some of the, usually state funded, “climate scientists” rather than listening to the usually more sensible physicists who understand logic, chaotic systems, radiation, heat and huge future prediction complexities and geologists who can see the history of climate, c02 and sea levels, over millions of years laid before them.

            Delingpole came over rather well despite the attempted mugging by the tv producers.

  2. colliemum
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    May I suggest that it is futile to talk about what is best at the end of school education (O-levels, GCSE, technical colleges, Uni for all …) as long as the foundations are lacking.
    When pupils have not been taught how to read properly, how to write properly, how to speak and write proper English, how to do simple calculations, then anything coming after Primary school is of no benefit to those children.

    Further, as long as learning is regarded as uncool, as something to be despised, it doesn’t matter how secondary education is tweaked.

    Finally, as long as pupils are taught that acquiring knowledge and skills can and should be done without any effort or work on the pupil’s side, and as long as it is accepted that everybody must have prizes so as not to damage the oh-so-frail self confidence of pupils, then nobody will learn.

    For some time now we read about universities having to provide remedial courses, about university leavers not being able to write essays in grammatically correct English, about employers having to ‘teach’ school leavers correct English.
    Doesn’t that show that the debate about O- and other levels, while useful, is missing the goal by a mile?

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

      As long as the best prizes are reserved for those who do the best then prizes for all works very well.

      I suspect employers have to teach their employees English because they keep hiring foreigners who can’t speak English.

    • Rebecca Hanson
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      I agree colliemum.

      Before changing qualifications at 16 we need to look at what we are doing up to the age of 14. Substantial improvements could be achieved by combining formative and summative assessment using ICT systems which allow all parties access both to seeing the progress of the child and to seeing resources which explain how the particular weaknesses they have could be addressed.

      For this to be achieved a government would need to set a five year objective of abolishing SATS following the adoption of such systems. Creating such systems would require very substantial investment on the part of the major education companies so they would require a coherent policy environment to justify the investment.

      More details here: http://mathseducationandallthat.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/assessing-students-up-to-age-14-much.html

  3. Mike Stallard
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    “Defenders of the old system”
    OK so let us go back to the 1930s for a moment.

    My father was the son of the local parson, so along with the son of the local brewer and the farmer’s sons, he went to St Edward’s, Oxford, and from there to Cambridge where he studied to become, like his father before him, a professional man. Meanwhile the village boys went to the local school marm and learned how to read, write, and use the complicated measurement systems and the money, and to say “Yes Ma’am” and wash behind their ears.

    Now let us march forward into the early years of the 21st century after 10 magnificent years of Labour Reform.
    (Some children are decalred dyslexic and do poorly at school. Some with behavioural problems are given drugs to tackle it -etc ed) The annual pass rate at (a local) Comprehensive school last year was 23%. Meanwhile the local farmer’s and Vicar’s children go to the independent Grammar School where they are doing really well, I hear.

    So let us have a little less complacency please.

    Reply: I am far from complacent. I am askign for views.

  4. James Strachan
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    I am a governor of my local comprehensive school.

    I sometimes use the subversive view that, if a child can write an invoice and calculate the vat, they should be free to leave school and enter work.

    • Mike Stallard
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      You are so right! Please do encourage this to happen as a “work experience under School Outreach to the Local Community Project”.

    • Manof Kent
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Excellent point of view !

    • lifelogic
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Most, I find, can put the VAT on something – especially at the absurdly high (but round number) of 20%. Remarkably few, amazingly, are able to work out the VAT included in say a £156.20 bill.

      I once even met a VAT inspector who could not do it in reverse thinking it was the same % – she seemed quite impressed when I explain it to her!

    • Bob
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      @James Strachan

      Shouldn’t they first ask the customer if he wants an invoice?

    • libertarian
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      James Strachan

      As someone heavily involved in employment and the world of work, especially apprenticeships etc I can tell you I agree 100% with what you say.

      We spend far too much time obsessing about qualifications and not enough worrying about skills.

      Skills are attitudinal, we need to develop a work ethic a basic understanding of commerce and as you say the ability to write an invoice and calculate the VAT.

      In the discussion about qualifications we always look at the tests never the content.

      I left school aged 14 with no qualifications of any kind. I’ve been working for forty years, I first started working in Information Technology in 1970 and STILL today after all that time no school, qualification or college in the UK teaches programming, system infrastructure and architecture or web design.

      Most young people that I meet, and I meet lots as I’m a college governor, board of a University and talk to schools about business, are disengaged because the subject content that they are force fed is NOT relevant to their lives in the 21st century.

      As an employer I couldn’t care less if a 19 year old comes to me with GCSE’s A ‘s A2 a degree or anything else. If they haven’t got the basic reading writing and arithmetic skills allied to an attitude in which they are willing to make an effort to earn their money, display some customer care and awareness and a willingness to learn then they are unemployable.

      • lifelogic
        Posted June 23, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink


  5. Martin Cole
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Most parents can detect varying aptitudes among their children at a fairly early stage of development. Given the removal of the taxation burden levied to pay for the non-education of other peoples often unteachable offspring, they could thus select and pay for suitable schools for their own kids had they the funds.

    The State, having removed such choice by penal levels of tax for ordinary families has no right to defer its own comparison of abilities to the age of sixteen, let alone until A Levels at eighteen. Streaming according to tested academic ability from seven should be the norm, with further testing at eleven and secondary school division, with opportunities for a second chance at thirteen and fifteen for marginal failures, as existed in Devon in the 1950s, seems perfectly fair and sensible.

    Better still get the state out of all the areas of life where it has no place, such as education, health etc and give people back the responsibility for their own lives, that way they would soon grasp the importance of study to gain qualifications which accrue from education, as opposed to learning how to make claims on the state.

    • Bazman
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      All of which would further the British caste and ingrain deeper middle class social security systems. What would happen to the rest ‘freed’ from state control and left with no education whatsoever?

      • Mike Stallard
        Posted June 23, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        You are out of date. Have you not noticed how the rich get the good results, the University places, the BBC jobs, the political advisorships and so on?
        Meanwhile the people who haven’t got the money don’t.

        Taking the State out of education is not on the agenda at the moment.

        What we are actually witnessing is a massive take-over by the DfE of English Education from the counties.

    • lifelogic
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      “detect varying aptitudes among their children” – Do not say that, it is clearly heresy. In the new socialist EU all are equal by law and Clegg will soon ban it or any discussion of it anyway – I am quite sure (no one is fat, thick, or uncoordinated either please note).

      • Bob
        Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink


        “…no one is fat, thick, or uncoordinated…
        – lifelogic

        Speak for yourself!

      • Bazman
        Posted June 23, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        Aptitudes can change over the years for many and varied reasons. Are we to label them as they are forever more. A real problem in working class society where you are supposed to never change or improve yourself. Why do you think names ate shortened, nicknames given and vowels put on the end of the name. Are they forever to be ‘Tomo’ and ‘Robo’ Notice how this is much less in middle class circles and ask yourself why and why any sort of self improvement is looked down on? Your ideology is much against any improvement in this state of affirs nothing can or should be done as it is the way of the world etc. That is just fick. fick and fin, thick and thin sounds funny from a six year old.

        • Mark
          Posted June 24, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          Thommo was a very fine fast bowler who I had the pleasure to watch in his partnership with the magical Dennis Lillee – known fondly as Lilian Thompson.

          “Tomo” is Spanish for “I take”.

  6. lifelogic
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I am constantly amazed by how hard schools find it to get basic English, and maths into students surely they could do that for most (even given the absurdly irrational spelling). At least then people could learn later as they go through life. For the weaker student teach then how to drive, build, joinery, farm, fix cars, cook or similar they would prefer it and find it useful.

    Exams (and school reports) should just give students a percentile position rather than the current inflated nonsense grades (or smoke and mirrors) to stop further inflation and tell then the truth for a change.

    Libdems/Cameron and Socialist seems to think all have the same natural ability and all should do the same exams – be this at sport, playing the violin, maths or anything else they clearly do not. They should learn to look at the world as it actually is for a change, rather than their, all are the same, green dream, world.

    • zorro
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      The thing that I notice, generally speaking, in most of the youths/students I have spoken to is their lack of historical knowledge or awareness of old cultures and how we have derived most of our own mores from those societies…..I think gebneral knowledge is another weakspot. Of course, this is a generalisation, but in my experience, a valid one.

      So I suppose that I think that there is a more dumbed down element to the way the education system works. I’ve also noticed that they tend to struggle to act on their own initiative or give reasoned opinions/proposals. Now whether that is because they lack the confidence or find it difficult to deal with critical evaluation, I’m not altogether sure.

      At work, this lack of independent thought is apparent and sems to have been knocked out of people even if they think what they have been asked to do simply will not work.


      • zorro
        Posted June 23, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        But then modern historical awareness of power relationships is not always the forte of degree educated politicians either so one shouldn’t be too harsh……


    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      Why should learning how to drive, build, joinery, farm, fix cars, or cook only be confined to the “weaker student2”? Are you implying that these professions are staffed by idiots? It’s that sort of snobbery that lead to the demise of technical schools.

      • lifelogic
        Posted June 23, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        I think they would be good for most students. Rather more use than Latin and Greek unless you want to sound pompous as a lawyer or doctor and say to the patient. Well Mr D you certainly have a very bad case of “pruritus ani” I am quite sure of that.

        • uanime5
          Posted June 24, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

          Well at least Greek or Latin is easier to understand than eponymous names. You can’t guess what Turner, Patau, or Williams syndromes are.

    • Bazman
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      Where does this ability come from? They are naturally clever? Oh really. You think the British caste system is entirely natural like Darwinism and has evolved over centuries to put the most intelligent in charge of the country with the best jobs and most money. The lowest being there because of their families inability and aptitude? If you believe that then you believe anything. I suspect you find theories to back up your own prejudices and vindicate them as being ‘scientific’ and obvious. What do we want hippies or roads? etc. Clarksons main trick.

      • lifelogic
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Do you think you could teach a sheep advances maths then?
        Do you think a top footballer is more likely to have good footballers as children or a top chess player likewise?

        Some is nature, some is nurture but most science shows clearly is written into the genes before birth – this is what the science, evolution and genetics clearly shows. Whether it is PC or not it is just a fact (on average). It also applies to height, sporting ability, eye sight, colouring of skin, hair and eyes ………

        This is not to say all should have the opportunity to make the most of their abilities. Dim parents can certainly have clever children and the reverse.

        • lifelogic
          Posted June 24, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

          Sorry “This is not to say all should not have the opportunity” was what I meant to say.

        • Mark
          Posted June 24, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

          I think that statistically there is an expectation of regression to the mean – i.e. those at one extreme tend to have offspring who are slightly closer to average. Of course there is dispersion around the expectation as well.

          • lifelogic
            Posted June 26, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

            Indeed there is regression to the mean Beckhams’s children are clearly unlikely to be one of the best footballers in the world but are certainly likely to be better than average at it or at least have better potential at it.

            Regression to the mean is often used by governments (together with confusing cause and effect the other favourite) to justify things like speed cameras. Put them where there have been a few random accidents, Then, next year, when there are not so many (as statistically expected) claim the camera did it. While counting the all those lovely fine cash receipts.

        • RDM
          Posted June 25, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

          @Bazman: Total agree, but not complete.

          Most studies into Intelligence end up with so many categories (of Intelligence), it make the study worthless. This points’ toward a very important issue; Just because you are not as academic, as a group of some other students, does not mean that an Academic education is not important! They could be a slower learner, not happy with the learning method, less interested in some subjects, etc … But; lower level academic classes could easily end up as better Problem Solvers, or Systems Thinkers, etc …

          This highlights a very import problem with O level. A particular subject is one big structure, and if a student misses any part, or is not that interested, then it makes it very difficult to teach. Especially if the Teacher knows that a pupil is a lot brighter then their performance suggests. I believe that the Modular systems is ineffective, but it gave the Teacher a means to engage the pupil in something! It gives the Teacher flexibility too teach.

          Also; If we are to move towards a higher valued added economy, a more efficient economy, aren’t we all going to have too pursue a culture of Life long learning? And stop trying to use the Education system to Classify society?

          Most people reaching the “Top” today, do so, like Monkey’s on a string!

          I know a few “Top” Judges, Scientists, Engineers, and they are more then useless Systems, Strategic, Abstract, or Creative thinkers, but very good at their job, narrowly defined!

          @Lifelogic: Rubbish! But agree with what the state should be providing; that is a framework that enables everyone to take what ever opportunity life affords them. i.e Access to the British Banking system! Education is a long term problem.



          • lifelogic
            Posted June 26, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

            What is rubbish?

        • Bazman
          Posted June 25, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

          Could parents have a sheep and then try to teach it advanced maths?

          • RDM
            Posted June 26, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

            The degree to which Nature plays a role, it depends on the decease or attribute you are trying to understand. Say, Baldness is more defined by DNA/RNA, then, say, fitness, if at all!

            Your DNA/RNA gives you a “Predisposition” towards some abilities. Say Intelligence, broadly defined, and you are more able! But try defining (narrowly) Intelligence, and you’ll be a life time trying, and Good luck on that, because NO ONE has been able to so far!

            For every one Psychologist you quote, I’ll find another …

            But, don’t forget; just because you have a third arm( potential), does not mean you won’t to, or know how to, use it! i.e A Monkey can be taught Abstract Maths, of very degrees.

            Talking about a Regression implies (wrongly) that you can measure it?

            What is a good Footballer? Don’t say Beckham!

            How many studies of Mathematics are there, meaning there isn’t just one standard. Monkeys do use Calculus systems, broadly defined! I have Majored at some (Maths), and totally rubbish at the rest? I have taught a bit of wire and some components to play advanced Chess?

            All this means that there is no such thing as “average”, just a set of unique people, having differing abilities. The problem arises because some abilities are more useful then others! And then include some different attributes, stubbornness, innate strength, etc …

            This does not mean you can’t recognize differing abilities, say, who is in the top 10%. Just that not at the cost of the others! The one that will change the world, will NOT be in the top 10%. The odds are against you!

            Besides; these abilities you would be measuring, here today, could not be the abilities we need for tomorrow. The one thing that lets the human race survive will be adaptability!

            Hope this is clear, joke!

            I have spent years trying to find a definitive answer, but it depends who you talk too!



          • lifelogic
            Posted June 27, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

            @RDM – indeed intelligence is many things even coordination at football is due to brain, activity processing information from and to the eyes and muscles. Then there is memory recall (short and long term), logical processing, visual processing, spacial processing, speed of recall, speed and precision of hand writing……….., but they can indeed all be measured.

            I for example am pretty useless at anagrams, spelling and remembering names. It certainly has a genetic component I have not doubt of this it can clearly be shown and has been.

  7. stred
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    In fact, under the old system there was provision for bright children to transfer upwards later. There was a 13+ exam for secondary modern pupils. The training for future skilled workers was better in the secondary modern.

    I met some old boys outside the school which I was considering for my daughter. The school, which had become a ‘College for Media and the Arts’ was in a ‘disadvantaged’ estate. They told me that when it used to be a secondary modern they had been given a very good education which had given them a good income for life. They really respected their teachers.

    Over a lifetime most of the people I knew who learned something practical earned more than I did as a professional in private practice.

    • stred
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      The 13+ exam I remember was in Devon.

      • a-Tracy
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

        There was no 13+ at my school or transfers

  8. David B
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    In a nut shell, one size does not fit all. We need variety in the system to fit the variety of abilities and needs. Improving the academic standard would be a good start

  9. Old Albion
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    The whole issue stems from the decision taken by Blair, that all children should go to university. (despite the massive fees [for the English only] a situation he created)
    Therefore we should make it as easy as possible for all to do just that.
    The reality, that so many politicians are unable to face (particularly those on the left) is children have different abilities.
    Those of high academic ability should reach out to higher education. Those with lower academic ability should be guided into vocation.
    We need to train our own youth to work in factories (if there are any remaining) We need to train them into skills, such as Plumbing, Electricians, Steel fixing, Bricklaying, Machining etc.
    It worked well for those of us born in the fifties and educated in the sixties.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      Under Blair tuition fees were initially £1,100, later raised to £3,000. Under the Conservatives they were raised to £9,000. So the massive rise in fees was mostly due to the Conservatives, not Blair or Labour.

      Those of high academic ability should reach out to higher education. Those with lower academic ability should be guided into vocation.

      Such snobbery is why technical schools and polytechnics were considered inferior and closed down. Those with high academic ability should go into higher education, those with high vocational ability should do vocational courses, and those with neither should be helped to get a job.

      • lifelogic
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        What we needed was more and far better “technical schools and polytechnics” and they went changed them all into more Universities (of sorts).

  10. oldtimer
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    If the international comparisons quoted by Mr Gove are a good indicator of relative international attainment, then the UK system is not doing very well and needs to be improved. Carrying on without seeking improvement does not sound a good idea to me.

    I agree with your concluding paragraph that O and A levels and specific vocational courses and schools often worked for those who were able to take advantage of them. But if these are to be re-introduced/developed, there also need to be foundational standards shared by all including those who do not take either the academic or the technical route to further/vocational education.

    Many successful entrepreneurs go their own way, by-passing A levels or vocational qualifications; their strength is their insights, their ideas and their determination to realise them. Others succeed through persuasive personal skills. My conclusion is that the education system, its institutions and exams, needs to cater for this diversity of evolution and not try to force everyone into a one size shoe fits all.

  11. merlin
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    I sat O levels and A/S levels and taught both and CSE, which eventually became GCSE’s. My experience as a classroom teacher has enabled me to observe education in practice in the state sector and after 25 years have come to the following conclusions:_

    1 Bring back the 11+

    2 Reintroduce the O-level as soon as possible

    3 Bring back grammar schools

    4 Bring back secondary moderns

    5 Reintroduce the CSE

    All of the above should happen as soon as possible, but maybe use a different name for all of the above say, technical school for secondary modern etc.,
    Final point academic schools are equal to secondary moderns in educational value and you can be far more successful as a builder finacially than say a university lecturer in theorectical physics.
    Yes, GCSE’s are dumbed down and extremely easy and in order for this country to compete with Singapore we need to raise educational standards in the state sector.
    The most important thing of all though is classroom discipline in the state sector, there isn’t any and the only way to restore this is to give teachers more power over children i.e the power to control children and children should not have their own rights in the classroom. The cane existed in many schools in which I worked, it was hardly ever used but existed as a deterrent. Comprehensive education in my view does not work and has been a total failure and should be phased out.

    • Bob
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink


      If you’re not a UKIP member, then you should be.

    • Alan Wheatley
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      With the 11+ the Technical school was distinctly different to the Secondary Modern, more like a sciences version of the grammar. Selection at 11 to go to the school best suited to the child (including the ability to switch later on) was a sound idea. It was very badly implemented: grammar schools got a disproportionately large percentage of the resources, and technical schools were too rare.

      However, having gone through the disruption of the change to the comprehensive system I am dead against yet more disruption changing back. AND in any event, the comprehensive school ought to be able to offer the full range of course found in the grammar, technical and secondary modern schools, which would be an advantage for children as they would have an even better chance of revealing their full potential in the areas where their aptitude lies.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      All terrible ideas.

      1) What is it about 11 year olds that allows you to determine their academic ability as an adult?

      2) What’s wrong with GCSEs?

      3) Grammar schools were nothing more than schools for the middle class children so they didn’t have to meet working class children. Their abolition was a great step towards the dismantling of the class system.

      4) They already exist. They’re usually referred to as ‘sink schools’.

      5) Why? Surely all children should have the chance to try to get an A grade, rather than have their maximum grade capped at a C.

      6) All the cane does is teach children that violence is acceptable and doesn’t increase discipline. If the came made children behave then children would only need to be caned once, not repeatedly.

      Perhaps you should look at what works at schools in other countries, rather than believing in 1950’s fantasy.

      • Lindsay McDougall
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 5:25 am | Permalink

        1) You don’t need absolute selection at 11 but you do need it by 16 at the latest. Don’t forget that there are all sorts of out-of-school options for late developers these days.

        2) GCSEs are not difficult enough.

        3) Grammar schools were one of the best engines of social mobility there has ever been. A bright child from a working class home can respect his roots but he/she has to be up, up and away.

        4) I think that these days we might be a little bit more enlightened about the curriculum for ‘Secondary Moderns’ They don’t have to be grotty.

        5) No comment on CSE; don’t know much about it. Is it the right exam for upgraded ‘Secondary Moderns’?

        6) My housemaster had a very thin, whippy cane made of birch wood. Two strokes of that and you knew about it. Like you, my school and my family reject corporal punishment but they do struggle to discipline my grandson. ‘Go to your room for 5 minutes’ is not 100% effective.

        • JT
          Posted June 24, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

          1. Specialise at 13/ 14 then … GCSE / O Levels take 3 years.
          11+ is too young
          but make it 14-16 .. 3 years and would allow for specialisation into post 16 education

          2. GCSEs are actually too hard for 50% of the pupils that take them !
          For the remaining 50% that pass, there is a need to refine pass distinctions

          3. Grammar schools were a small contributory factor in social mobility … they did not do much in the Victorian period or the 1930s … And the effects of the 2nd WW & the changing nature of the economy had the most impact on social mobility


  12. barry laughton (@kil
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    The Victorian school marm was right, educating children to read was the most important part of life. It was never known at what age a child might leave school, so the most important skills had to be taught as quickly as possible. Dealing with money was an essential skill, and the old £sd system was more difficult than the present decimal system. Even in the fifties and sixties a bar person would add a five person round in their head and give the change, just one transaction at the till, the total.
    At present, the primary schools objective should be to teach these basic skills as comprehensively as possible to every child’s capability. Links between primary and secondary education is essential. Secondary Schools should impart their expectations of children joining their school, and Primary Schools should inform the Secondary schools the art of the possible.

    • libertarian
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      You are so right about money.

      The day before yesterday I purchased some breakfast at railway station buffet. The two very smartly dressed, reasonably polite , roughly 18/19 year old young ladies had to debate for quite sometime exactly what the right change for £10 against a bill of £4.90. They settled on £5.90 !!! I did give the money back. The interesting thing was that they had an electronic till but still didn’t seem to get it.

  13. Alan Wheatley
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    The place to start is with the children. The objective of education should be that each child should achieve the maximum of which they are capable according to their aptitudes and abilities. Exams are the means of testing what has been achieved, and must be matched to the course work.

    It is vital to recognise that not all children are alike; course work and exams should be designed to suite a wide range of interests and abilities. Education policy has been cursed for decades by the latest bright idea, although meritorious in itself, being applied across the broad. For instance, just because there is merit in having skills at, say, French, it does not follow that EVERY child MUST learn French.

    There are key subjects that every child should study, mosts notably English and maths. But just because the subjects are important it does not follow that all children should be taught in the same way to the same level, as not all children are equally able. A one-size-fits-all approach will mean that the most able are frustrated by a pedestrian pace and the least able will not be able to keep up, loose interest and, in some cases, find it much more fun to hang around town all day rather than go to boring old school. Once this is recognised the wisdom of the O-level and CSE approach is obvious.

    One of the great benefits that should come with the switch from the 11-plus to comprehensive system is that children could mix-and-match their courses according to aptitude. So, for instance, do English O-level and maths CSE. Far, far better a CSE passed than a O-level abandoned.

    • Mark
      Posted June 25, 2012 at 12:32 am | Permalink

      Your principle that the aim should be to get the best out of each child in the light of its abilities is surely right. We seem to be losing at every level of ability against that criterion. Even those who are of average ability are not being adequately stretched, while the least able fall behind because the metrics of performance drive teachers to concentrate on the C/D boundary.

  14. JimF
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    As you say O/A levels/Uni for the academically minded
    O Levels plus technical schools combined with apprenticeships for learning a trade and how to operate a business in a trade successfully
    CSEs then Apprenticeships for the purely practically minded

    All government funded by Grants to approximately similar levels until aged 21, after which “you’re on your own” i.e. loans not grants. How does government pay for this? By reducing benefits payable to a more highly skilled workforce.

    • Alan Wheatley
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      A “technical” school should not be a school for the less academically minded. It should be a school for the academically minded with an aptitude for the sciences and engineering, as opposed to , say, languages and poetry.

  15. Tedgo
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    There was always more than O and A level. In the late 50’s I studied for 6 O levels which included besides maths, physics, English and history, technical drawing and metalwork. Others in the school studied UEI courses, which were less academic with more emphasis on the practical side, some studied market gardening for instance. Later on some of these courses became known as CSE.

    The system was honest about recognising peoples different abilities. But it didn’t hold children back, I moved up two streams, from 1B to 1A2 then to 2A1 in 12 months, the school recognised my potential.

    The problem with the current all in one GCSE is that it is not clear what academic standard has been reached. Take maths, this can be studied at two levels. The upper stream, aiming at grades A, B and C is like O level while the lower stream studies for grades C, D and below. But there is a grey area, a lower stream student does not study algebra so if a student presents themselves with a grade C, have they studied algebra or not. The system is dishonest and certainly not very helpful to prospective employers.

    I did say “like O level” above, but I think the rigour has been lost even in the upper stream. On parents evening I was always appalled at the standard of maths teaching, the card system was in vogue then.

    Beyond O level there was A level, Ordinary National Certificate (ONC) and City and Guilds. The last two were mainly taken at technical colleges, the C&G courses were aimed at practical subjects needed by a wide variety of trades, such as machinists and technicians. The courses are still availably today.

    I went the ONC route, I took on an apprenticeship and unusually, studied two days a week at Erdington Technical College, (most studied one day and an evening).

    Over two years we studied seven engineering subjects all with the same academic rigour as A level, with end of year exams. Laboratory work also played an important part, each subject required 12+ written reports a year.

    ONC usually lead on to Higher National Certificate/Diploma (HNC/HND) or university, I took the latter route. The HNC was equivalent to a pass degree on a subject by subject basis.

    I was the last group of students to do the rigorous ONC. The following year the BTECH courses were introduced to replace ONC. It was perceived that too many were failing ONC and a less academic course was required. My perception is, over the years, that BTECH courses have been dumbed down too much.

    I am in favour of going back to rigorous O and A levels, but also bring back a rigorous ONC and HNC as they can be studied on a part time basis.

    What does surprise me now is how much free time A level students seem to have with only a few hours per week in the class room. The two days at college and three days at work regime I followed would seem to be a good model to develop.

    • alan jutson
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink


      Similar views to you.

      Went to a Secondary modern, then onto Polytechnic day and evening whilst completing a proper indentured apprenticeship, went through a number of courses over an 8 year period (my Company continued to give me extra time off, as I was passing all exams) to gain HNC.

      When I eventually gave up on examinations, Iwas qualifed to run the complete production facility of a car component manufacturing organisation, before then moving into general management .

      Moved out of engineering due to poor rewards, and eventually formed and ran my own design and build construction Company until retirement.

      I had absolutely no interest in school work, prefered playing football, but soon realised, rather late, that education was important to my future, hence my late development.

      Given that today most families have two people working, I would extend the school day from 8.00 until 6.00 with no homework given.
      All (extra) study to be done at school under supervision.

      Some pupils do not have home facilities/room to complete homework, and are thus at a disadvantage.

      Longer school hours keeps kids off of the street and in a controlled enviroment.

      Longer hours means parents can work normal hours.

      Schools should have breakfast, dinner and snack facilities available.

      Yes teachers would have to work longer hours at school, but then given proper rotation and manning, have no homework to mark.
      The alternative would be to have more teachers per School, and work on a simple job share/shift system.

      Quite why schools need 13 weeks holiday a year also baffles me.

      • alan jutson
        Posted June 23, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

        One National examination (whatever it may be called) is needed at each level/age, for the simple reason of being able to make a proper comaprison between students throughout the Country.

        The present nonesense of diffent examination boards offering different examinations at the same level/age with no proper comparison on difficulty/acheivement is crazy.

        Students have to learn that not every one is a winner, to prepare them for later life, which sure as hell will confront them sooner or later.
        If you play any sort of sport there are winners and losers, simple fact some people/teams are better than others.

      • uanime5
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps the best solution for homework is to tell students what they have to do for this lesson and that whatever they don’t finish is their homework. This would give children an incentive to work hard in their lessons so they’ll have as little homework as possible.

  16. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Please spare a thought for prospective employers. How do they sort out the sheep from the goats? Those can attain neither academic nor vocational excellence will probably ‘work well at an average level’.

    • Bob
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      In Chinese, they use the same word for sheep and goat.

      • Lindsay McDougall
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 4:55 am | Permalink

        Damn stupid, these Chinese!

      • lifelogic
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

        What 15,000,000 words but only one for both sheep and goats?

      • lifelogic
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

        What 15 million words and only one for sheep and goats.

    • lifelogic
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      How do prospective employers sort out the sheep from the goats?

      They have to give them their own in house tests alas – it is the only way – you cannot trust the GCSE’s to say anything much.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      Given that sheep tend to herd together and will follow each other to their own destruction while goats are more intelligent and better at climbing you’d think it would be easy to distinguish them with an interview. Also which do employers prefer: those who obey (sheep) or those who think (goats)?

  17. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    JR: “So what do you all think of the experiment?”
    It seems to me that throughout my adult life the state education system has been undertaking nothing but “experiments” with little benefit to show. Despite all the record number of exam passes it seems that a large number of children are still unable to acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills which previous generations achieved before leaving school at 14 or even younger. Our performance is declining in comparison to many other countries with whom we shall be competing in order to maintain our standard of living. I have little confidence in politicians or the education department to offer good education or exam systems.
    I see no point in further increasing the school leaving age from 16 to 17 and then 18, other than for politicians to massage the unemployment statistics.

    • Alan Wheatley
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      A couple of months ago there was a programme on BBC Radio 4 that reported on findings that schools have only a minor effect on the level of learning children achieve.

      • Alan Wheatley
        Posted June 23, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        Looks like the “experiment” has done little more than provide an outlet for a succession of “bright ideas” all of which missed the point!

  18. m wood
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    This may be an unpopular thought but the country needs an intellectual elite if it is to progress and prosper in a competitive world. This can only be achieved by encouraging pupils to compete and by praising their successes.

    • zorro
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      But we have an ‘intellectual elite’ governing us politically – David Cameron 1st Class Honurs degree PPE Oxford – Gideon Osborne 2-1 Modern History Oxford. They are making a ‘unique’ contribution enabling us to ‘progress and prosper in a competitive world’ – I mean what more could we ask for?


      • zorro
        Posted June 23, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink


      • lifelogic
        Posted June 23, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

        The problem is that the current intellectual elite they tend to often become pointless parasites in the state sector, the legal profession, banks, financial services, health and safety or perhaps tax planners. We need engineers, business people, farmers, doctors, nurses, sales people, builders and the like.

  19. Atlas
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I came through the ‘O’ and ‘A’ level system, and I saw the replacement GCSE system in operation via my children.

    I concluded that the GCSE was more about social engineering than education; where the emphasis now is not on supporting the bread-winners in our society, rather on providing the no-hopers with illusory qualifications. Really the present system is the politics of envy in action (where the dim resent the bright), which political parties play with to the detriment of our economy.

    I think Gove was right to challenge this dumbing-down edifice.

  20. a-tracy
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I think that there needs to be more truthful career options opened up for children of each ability rather than telling everybody that they can be anything they want to be. Schools need to advise children that want to be lawyers what is expected of them at the start of each year, what other pathways are open to them to consider. Instead we have everyone at 16 thinking they can all be the Manager and jobs in call centres, shops and low grade administration/sales are below them.

    You only have to look in the situations vacant to see where the job opportunties are. Communication skills are one of the most beneficial skills for a child to have and we let them down on that, both oral (face to face/telephone) and written.

    We could train more young boys and girls on the wards in the NHS at 16 and allow those capable to progress to more studious/academic training at level 4 and then on to a degree if they get an acceptable pass at 18 leaving a tranche of people in the NHS with caring skills that can be qualifed on the job at level 3 instead of trying to force all 16-18 year olds into a further two years classroom based study from next year.

    Allowing so many students to take art, drama, dance and media studies just to give them subjects they will enjoy that they may not have a real aptitude for to keep them out of the academic classes is a bad use of their time. These are not soft subjects and it should be as difficult to get on to those courses at A level as it is for Maths and Physics. The teenagers that are serious about a future career in these subjects then aren’t held back, it would be like putting D grade students in a top level Maths class the teacher then doesn’t have the time to push the class along at a sufficiently high level.

    I went to a Secondary Modern school which had it’s name changed to High School half way through my time there, all six of my primary school friends went to the Grammar school. I thought I wanted to work in a Bank or Building Society so was encouraged to take Commerce, Statistics, Geography and Physics, I wanted to take RSA shorthand typing at school and they wouldn’t let me because I was in the academic stream and had to choose a science (Physics cse grade 2! Great advice). I got the five O levels I needed to get a job in a Bank but after a fortnights work experience there while at school I decided it wasn’t for me. I had to go to night school and pay out of my meagre YTS wages for a course in typing and audio typing (I couldn’t afford the shorthand course too). Forcing children to learn a foreign language when they don’t want to and have no aptitude for it to 16 isn’t for everyone too and will hold the classes back for those that do.

    I dislike pushing square pegs into round holes and this governments education pledges are great for those of an academic leaning but for the creatives and technicians it is a nightmare. We should work with a child’s strengths rather than spending too much time working on pushing their weakest subject up from an E to a D there has got to be another way, workplaces have to find the best use out of all of their employees and increase their producitivy and you don’t do that by keep giving them work that takes them three times longer than someone else with three times the mistakes.

    I’ve had workers move from basic jobs to sales and become very successful in that sphere something they’d never thought of doing before. We need more and better sales people in this country and the skills needed for this profession are derided yet every business needs them and we don’t train to high enough standard: time management, communication, psychology, geographical knowledge, planning, costing, interpersonnel skills, letter writing, networking, contact management.

    I feel sorry that we continually try and prescribe the same thing for everybody and compulsory schooling to 18 to keep them off the unemployment statistics is going to be a nightmare for 6th form colleges if you don’t introduce useful courses.

  21. Caterpillar
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I have to agree with both Martin Cole’s point, “get the state out” and James Stachan’s “subversive view that , if a child can … they should be free to leave school”, these comments sum up the general problem that as government’s role and control has increased the system has become unwieldy, unresponsive and ineffective. (So get the state out of education, and let the kids out (air conditioned offices are not coal pits)).

    Specific problems I think exist;

    (1) Modularisation and spiral learning have destroyed the wholeness of some subjects. [Take a look at some A-level Further Maths modules, the syllabus is OK but the structure / order is damaging].
    (2) For some, achievement in mathematics and English drops in moving from primary to secondary. Dump the other subjects until a competent level in these has been achieved and maintained (even if Mr Gove is apparently obsessed with including small island history)
    (3) Achievement of learning outcomes has led to, (i) confusion between capabiltiy to rapidly learn vs. current stock of knowledge, (ii) non-learning outcome failures to be forgiven/ignored in assessments, (iii) over assessment, (iv) designing assessments to learning outcomes and (v) synoptic assessment to be introduced artificially. Reduce the number of LOs and get the QAA out of bench mark statements, level descriptors etc.

  22. boffin
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Universal compulsory school attendance to 16 is wasteful.

    A process of self-selection whereby youngsters might be granted the option of escaping school earlier – if and only if they had achieved set goals in the basics – to pursue apprenticeships or other vocational training would serve the nation much better.

    (Raising the leaving age to 16 was mainly about extension of the ‘client state’).

    State Scholarships had much egalitarian merit; now, they might have even more.

    • a-tracy
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Next year the school leaving age has been raised to 18

      • Mark
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        Another waste of resources, designed around stretching out the curriculum in order to keep unemployment figures down. Ed Balls was responsible for this, along with the massive waste of his Building Schools for the Future plan to rebuild every school in the country in just over a decade, as if buildings had such a limited life.

    • John Harrison
      Posted June 25, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      Quite right Boffin. There should be a School Leaving Certificate at age 14, the elements of which (reading, writing, maths etc.) can be taken variously at any time up to that age. This should be a certificate of competence to deal with the adult world NOT of academic prowess. No young person leaves school without a School Leaving Certificate. (At present, pupils can leave school at sixteen with no qualifications whatever.)
      After gaining their certificate, young people have ‘Personal Education’. They are free to learn whatever they wish – academic, “vocational”, physical, sporting or anything else. They learn from teachers, not schools. A single secondary school cannot meet the personal and unique needs of every individual pupil.
      There are many questions about the present educational system that should be asked, e.g.:
      Why do we have Primary and Secondary schools in the first place? (Answer: because a senior civil servant, Robert Morant, in 1902 was convinced that the elitist ‘Public’ school system was the best (only a few children got educated after 11 anyway).)
      Is the school system organised for the best education of each individual child or for the professional and administrative convenience of the education industry?
      To quote a retired secondary school teacher, A. J. Marsden who puts it much better than I could: ‘Education in this country will never function effectively until pupils, at least at secondary level, can choose their areas of study and do not spend every day wastefully being forced to learn much of what they do not want to know.’ Why is this?
      To read more about these radical ideas about what education should look like, see ‘Wot, No School? How schools impede education’ by Jonathan Langdale and John Harrison. (See Amazon)

  23. merlin
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I’m of the view that education should never have been nationalised in the first place, at least when schools were run by local charities and churches children actually left school able to read and write. The disastrous idea of comprehensive education instigated by socilaists has managed to lower not raise educational standards and as time passes it seems to get worse not better. There is no classroom discipline and children in state comprehensives appear scruffy, ill disciplined and lazy listening to their i-pods and constantly on their mobile phones. There has been an explosion of special educational needs which seems to have mushroomed over the years and the educational establishment seems to specialize in catering for these needs rather than focusing on actually educating children in individual subjects. Classroom discipline need to be restored and the power of the individual teacher need to be enhanced. There is far too much politcal interference in state education and the education of children should be channelled more through the individual teacher.Academic children should be educated in grammars while children more suited to vacational subjects need to be educated in german style technical schools, and to re-iterate both types of schools have equal value as far as future work is concerned. I do hope Michael Gove’s re-introduction of the O-level takes place, but I’m not hopeful about it. In general state education has been taken over by socialists and they are absolutley determined to brainwash naive pupils with their left wing propaganda and ideas. The whole educational system needs a complete transformation to make it competitive in the 21st century, but since we have liberals running the country, I’m not hopeful we will see any real change.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      The only problem with leaving schools in the hands of local charities and churches was that most children never went to school, therefore most of the population couldn’t read or write.

      Given that Germany is more socialist and left-wing than the UK it’s odd that you’re proposing adopting the Germany school system. Surely you should be proposing we adopt the right-wing system used in the USA.

      Finally as you’re proposing ideas from the 1950’s you’re unlikely to create an educational system that will be competitive in the 21st century.

  24. merlin
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    The teaching of science is another example of the dumbing down of education. I was educated from the age of 11 in 3 separate sciences, chemistry, physics, and biology but when I started to teach this became just science. The idea being that science could be taught by 1 teacher thus saving the schools money. This was a mistake and it would be better for children to be taught the 3 sciences by individual specialists which probably happens in private schools. These individual sciences are complex and difficult and trying to cover all three subjects under 1 umbrella means that the academic depth is never really reached, and at A level you will encounter the 3 separate sciences anyway.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      Science is taught by one teacher because of a shortage of science teachers, especially physics teachers.

      Also in most public schools it’s normal to teach the sciences separately. They accomplish this by having more than 1 science teacher.

  25. David Ashcombe
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately the entire education debate is framed within the design of the current education system, which has built on previous education systems to create an inchorent and ineffective educational experience for many today. I believe we need to redesign our education system from basic principles and be truly radical if we are to be effective.

    1. We do not need to be tied to the existing way schools work – teaching in short periods, public exams at 16 and 18, teaching in standard sized groups, allocating every teacher to a class for tutoring etc. etc. We should not be afraid rethink the educational process completely.

    2. We should accept that pupils are different in both their talents and level of maturity and stop trying to tie everyone to age groups. Progress should be based on achievement rather than carrying pupils through together at higher and lower standards at the same time.

    3. My perspective of the current system is that has replaced quality with volume.  Students work as hard, if not harder, than previous generations, but not to a higher standard.  Instead, for brighter pupils at least, it has become about gaining 12th A* in their GCSEs?  Not being stretched intellectually, but instead repeating the performance across multiple exams.

    4. Here are some ideas that I think should be considered:

    – reducing the ‘GCSE’ age from 16 to 15 to allow three years for advanced study
    – replacing the 8 grades for GCSEs with a number of merit-pass-fail only exams over the course of a school career, changing failure at GCSE for certifcates of actual achievement
    – classes attended to be based on talents and actual achievement, not just carried along with the rest of the year group
    – have all-day or multi-day courses instead of short lessons – providing more efficient teaching and not waiting until the end of term or year to measure progress
    – split teachers between subject matters expert and tutors focused on pupil development
    – vary class sizes to make beat use of teaching resource – have 60 or 90 sized groups for lecture type core teaching and 10 or 15 sized groups for in-depth sessions
    – older students teaching and coaching younger students to be standard practice

    These are just a few ideas, but I am sure there are many other ways that education can be improved.  But what I do know is that restricting the debate to GCSEs versus O levels is to be trapped in the behaviours of the past, rather than taking the radical action that is need to improve our education system.

    • libertarian
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Excellent post David.

      I agree the whole basis of our education system needs to be reevaluated

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      The problem with merit-pass-fail is that employers won’t be able to tell the best from the worst. With 8 grades its much easier to identify the best.

      Teaching students by ability, rather than form group, is common in most secondary schools. Especially in mandatory subjects such as maths, English, and science.

      All day course are impractical because the teacher can’t teach any other class during this time.

      How exactly are you going to have enough teachers for 10-15 sized groups if the total group is between 60-90 students?

      While many of your suggestions would work at a university where lecturers don’t spend all their time teaching at a school where the teachers are teaching every period they won’t work.

      • Mark
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        Music exams work by having a large number of grades of difficulty – 8 in fact in the main Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music exams. There are only four results possible: a pass with distinction, a pass with merit, a basic pass, and a fail. The standards have remained the same over many decades.

        A gifted child may skip grades (one of my school contemporaries learned the tuba to Grade VIII distinction standard in just one term).

  26. Magnolia
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I’m pleased that Mr Gove is trying to re-introduce the entitlement to streaming in the education of fourteen to sixteen year olds. There is already a two tier system for GCSEs in all but name because the less able follow a foundation course GCSE, where the top possible mark is a C, and these courses are not suitable for those progressing on to the subject at A level. This is made plain to parents and children by the schools and it is obvious to everyone except left wing politicians who like to pretend that children are all the same.
    I see the modern introduction of re-takes as progress because they allow the late developer, the bullied, the ill and all those who, for what ever reason, do poorly at their exams the first time, to have a second chance to get on and qualify to the best of their ability.
    The recent introduction of the A* grades show that the GCSE wasn’t suitable for the brightest. I think the rot starts for clever children at the very beginning during primary school. Children should be streamed from the start. The assessment systems, including the selection test for the grammar school, do not discriminate adequately for what I would call ‘raw intelligence’ as measured by an old fashioned intelligence test and these should be examined and changed because at present they favour tutored and better educated children at the expense of the more intelligent and less privileged child.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      GCSEs have had A* for a long time. It was the A-levels who recently go the A* grade because universities wanted more help identifying who were the brightest pupils.

      • Magnolia
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        Thank you uanime5. According to Wikipedia the GCSE A* grade was introduced in 1994 in order to help identify the brightest, following the introduction of the GCSE exams for all in 1988.

        • lifelogic
          Posted June 24, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

          Just give the percentile position relative to all entrants take the grading away from political or exam board manipulation. You were first, last, in the top 30th perventile or half way up – simple at that.

          • Magnolia
            Posted June 25, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

            lifelogic, while my heart is with you as a means of preventing grade inflation and of identifying the best students, my head tells me that we could not sell that approach politically, except perhaps as a side issue if a top performing percentile group were to be given free university tuition in return for say, ten years of paying full uk tax.
            School year groups vary in their ability and the teachers know this. Such a system as you suggest wouldn’t be a true representation of attainment because those lucky enough to take their exams during a ‘thick year’ would do better. Labour would call it unfair to lower attainment pupils in a ‘clever year’, but in truth it would be inaccurate grading. Perhaps pupils need both system grades to be given? The same problem arises in professional postgraduate medical exams, which have been ‘simplified’ to make them more consistent and fair. Not surprisingly they are now easier to pass and don’t necessarily discriminate adequately compared to the old ‘percentile way’ of setting the pass marks. Perhaps there needs to be an average taken between the ‘fair’ and the ‘percentile’ marks?

  27. Badgerbill
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    When my daughter was at infant school I became a school governor and sat in on two classes. The children sat on the floor and took little note of what was said. 80% of the lesson was used up keeping order. The gilrs were more attentive than the boys.
    When I suggested that they should be sitting at desks the rest of the governors were horrified. The head teacher could not explain why she taught five out of a class of thirty rather than whole class teaching.
    There appeared to me to be no interest in teaching as I knew it at school. No sense of purpose or preparing children for life after school.
    Michael Gove has the right ideas and should be supported. Mr Gradgrind was correct in saying that the hard facts should be taught. At the moment socialist lovies are running the system, including social services hence the problems that we have and the state of the country!

  28. AJAX
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Teach them to read, write & count, give them a basic grounding in the Arts & Sciences, specialize at as early an age as possible according to their inclinations (let them leave at 11 if there’s a responsible work placement they’ve got an option on as an apprentice, etc.) & pat them on the back at the end as the get kicked out the door with a “Best of luck to you!”

    Schooling – outside of study for membership of the professions – needs to be viewed as a privilege to pursue individual enlightenment, not a legal imposition by the State in pursuance of examination certificates achieved via clumsy 1 dimensional hoop jumping tests, which test little more in actuality than juvenile discipline, all designed by current government thinking in the erroneous belief that education is in someway linked to national economic performance

    The Chinese peasants pouring in from the paddy fields to the newly forming cities driving the current rise of the dragon are mostly illiterate; the Ellis Island immigrant host from the backwaters of Europe that the USA used to supercharge its economy with at the beginning of the 20th Century were the same, as were the English who forged the Industrial Revolution. Education isn’t linked to national economic power

    All talk about returning to the Gold Standard (i.e. ‘A’ Levels – not the interesting currency proposition), & ‘O’/CSE’s, ‘making exams harder’, Polys aren’t really Universities, a fixation with grammar schools (UKIP’s current leadership is v. badly hung up on this in a right wing Tory knee-jerk affectation fore a regression to a mythical 1950s social idyll that never was, when “all was right with the world & there were sausages for breakfast”), Public School privilege, Selectivism vs Comprehensivism , etc., is more to do with petty throw-back class hang-ups than real educational provision for the empowerment of individual capacity to comprehand the world about itself.

  29. lola
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Neither ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels or GCSE’s are ‘market solutions’ – hence they both failed. Returning to a centrally planned and designed exam for a centrally planned state education service (or as I prefer to think of it – a state indoctrination system) won’t be any good either.

    Better to denationalise education, scrap the nationalised curriculum and use a system of education vouchers to effect transfer payments. Parents could then select the school they prefer for their children and schools and exam boards will compete for students. And contrary to what any lefty numpty will tell you, such competition always improves standards as parents and children will want to spend their money the best way to get the best education value that will best equip their children for the future.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      Actually the system you’re proposing results in a few schools doing well by excluding the worst pupils and the rest becoming sink schools. Competition in education just results in a race to the bottom, such as the exam boards offering easier exams to increase the number of schools that use their exam.

    • Caterpillar
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      It is sad that the voucher system policy under Michael Howard’s leadership was dropped by the Conservatives. It didn’t go far enough, but at least it would have been a move in a competitive direction.

  30. Bert Young
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Before changing my career at 32 years of age , I was a Teacher for 5 years and a Headmaster for 7 years . I think I can claim that I both knew and was successful at what I was doing ; education – prior to the Butler reforms , attracted highly competent and well qualified individuals into the profession , since then , the whole system has gone slowly down-hill . The fault lies not only with the introduction of – the so-called Comprehensive Schools at the expense of the Grammar Schools , but , with the deterioration of the standards required of those entering the profession . Added to this is the change from end-of-year examinations to modular based assessment . Technical schools and colleges have gone , new “universities” have appeared all over the place and the percentage of those entering further education has increased by leaps and bounds . Degrees can now be obtained in “Golf Management” and a plethora of other meaningless subjects . Relatively unintelligent individuals obtain degrees and believe they are equally entitled to those opportunities previously the reserve of traditionally qualified individuals . The education system as it stands , does little to recognise the competitive state of the world and the demand for well-trained and effectively prepared people .
    Mr. Gove has pin-pointed a place to start to change things for the better ; he needs to start at the top and work down from there . He must protect and preserve the few things that are still good (Oxbridge) , look carefully at selection criteria throughout the entire system , waste no time in getting rid of bad teachers and , continue to pursue his demand for more meaningful exams . He must not be put off by the distraction of the “Big Society” or by the wittering down efforts of the Liberals . I wish him the best of luck.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      Actually Gove is doing the opposite of what you claim he’s doing. His academies don’t require professional teachers, so effectively he replacing competent and well qualified individuals with the dinner ladies. Expect bad teachers to do very well out of these lower requirements.

    • John Harrison
      Posted June 25, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Actually, I’d quite like my golf club (if I had one) to be managed by someone who had a degree in Golf Management. Are we arguing about academic status or appropriate training for appropriate careers?

  31. Derek Emery
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    There is a massive range of ability differences between people and these abilities are in different areas. Large differences are accepted in music and sport but not in intellect. A few 16 year old musicians can be world class as can a few 16 year old sportsmen or woman. The majority of 16 year olds would have nowhere near these abilities.
    There are similar difference in intellectual ability but this is much less acceptable presumably as intellect is seen as a large determinant of life chances. I wonder if this is because because music and sports ability are not central to the mainstream education system?

    In music and sport it is acceptable to have competitions at a range of levels from world class downwards that distinguish and recognise elite performers.

    The same is not acceptable in the UK for ordinary educational subjects. Exams and study today are based on rote learning and practising to pass because this is the only way to hide the huge range of ability. High performance must be hidden by the exam system to meet the equality agenda and rote learning is perfect for achieving this.

    If you had exam papers with some questions designed that only those with a good understanding could hope to answer it would exclude the very large percentage of rote learners who would not know where to start as these would not be standard questions they had practised. Equality would be lost.

    Today the trend is for inclusion so you can have many thousands with A* results.

    It is not acceptable in the UK that there are large differences in intellect and that some have high skills with their hands but are not intellectually able whereas it is perfectly acceptable in Germany and education is arranged to suit the types of abilities.
    I think this stems simply from the long term failure of the UK economy to retain a burgeoning industrial economy compared with the German success in this area.

    This means that whereas Germany needs to and can offer many skilled well paid apprenticeships for those with these skills there is little or nothing left in the UK for people with these skills.

    Hence Germany has retained a full range of educational opportunities to suit the need of their workplace.

    This was lost in the UK decades ago (1980s-90s?) as the UK industrial sector declined and with it the skilled work. All the myriad training college courses for such industrial apprenticeships have long vanished in the UK. There is no equivalent demand now for the people with high manual skills.

    The hollowing out in the UK of the skilled level means that the only well paid jobs left here now are in the professions. Hence the only interest of most UK politicians is getting people into university.

    The distribution of intellect is such that only the top 10 to 15% have the ability to pass the old GCE papers for university entrance and that fitted with the workplace needs for top professional numbers.

    Now the aim is to have 40% at university so both course and exams have to be dumbed down to allow this number to pass. Rote learning is the only possible way to achieve this percentage of passes whatever politicians say. You cannot induce intellect.

    Graduates may have a degree but many degrees today have to be based on rote learning to allow the required percentage to pass. Employers report that today even graduates cannot be expected to have good English and Maths skills.

    The private sector is still ruled by cut-throat competition. Therefore top private companies need the best most able professionals to compete with other companies.
    Hence top private companies will not serve the political equality agenda. It is very easy to recognise those with a facility from the plodders at interview so the equality agenda counts for nothing in this sector.

    Government does not realise that top research universities are also in a continuous competitive race with others around the world. They positions are not set in stone. If top universities are dumbed down then they will not have the very best most able students to conduct research projects. Top researchers are in a competitive race with other top researchers around the world. If you tell them they will have to use plodders they will simply leave as their research is far more important to than the lecturing aspect. There will be a flight of top researchers if government targets mean they cannot keep up their output of research papers. The number of papers and their excellence determines their future advancement.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      Gove’s solution to this problem: make rote learning mandatory in primary schools.

      Also RBS failed to spot that Fred Goodwin was incapable. I guess the private sector isn’t as adept as you claim it is.

      • Lindsay McDougall
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        Brutal laissez faire capitalism is effective. What none of you on the left accept is that bailing out banks is interventionism – and it has had grossly damaging effects. These banks in Spain are failed institutions; bailing them out is simply throwing good money after bad. Don’t do it at all.

        As for Freddie Goodwin, remember that he was lionised by the whole LABOUR government. Perhaps you will tell me why he has never been sued out of sight by RBS shareholders. Maybe there is the odd secret indemnity or two hidden away.

      • APL
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        uanime5: “I guess the private sector isn’t as adept as you claim it is.”

        Here again you utterly miss the point.

        It’s not that the private sector is any better or worse than the public sector, its that should the private sector company fail, that’s it, it’s failed! It doesn’t keep churning out the same rubbish that no one wants.

        Some of what remains of the failed private sector company may be useful for another entrepreneur, in which cast he will buy up the valuable assets of the failed company and make use of them in a new venture.

        That process of renewal simply doesn’t happen in the public sector.

        It is what many of us on the Right object to, when government stepped in to bail out RBS. Which as you point out failed because of incorrect assumptions about infinite growth in the credit economy.

      • APL
        Posted June 25, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        uanime5: “Also RBS failed to spot that Fred Goodwin was incapable.”

        Which is clearly another uanime5 fallacy, Goodwin was clearly very capable. You do not get to the top of an organization without having some talent*. His error was his failure to have a contingency in place when his plan – take advantage of ever increasing credit – to expand the Royal Bank operations, ran up against the collapse of credit.

        *Even if that only amounts to a willingness to step on your colleagues necks.

  32. gyges
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    The difference between now and then is assessment: now we have criteria assessment then we had normative assessment. In the past the grades from the whole country were taken, normalised and grades were allocated depending upon where you found yourself under the bell curve. That meant that if you had an A you were one of the brightest in the country.

    Now, the assessment is against pre-set criteria: if you meet these criteria you make the grade.

    This means that the brightest have been cheated out of their status and recognition. They deserve free further education but how do you tell the brightest from the not as bright?

    The current system is a failure; it is deceiptful to the less able that are encouraged beyond their capabilities.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

      The problem with a bell curve is that it only identifies the brightest when compared to their peers, so in a group of idiots someone with mediocre abilities would be classed a genius. The current system is much better as you won’t be classified as a genius unless you have the required academic ability.

      • lifelogic
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        Yes but the average intake year to year is fairly consistent so it is a good measure.

  33. forthurst
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Although denied by by socialists and the flakey end of academe (‘Education’, ‘Psychology’, ‘Sociology’ etc), the Bell Curve exists and is similar throughout Western Europe. Why? How have nations evolved with abilities ranging from the extremely bright to the extremely stupid? Why has evolutionary pressure, before the advent of socialism and ‘something for nothing’, not selected exclusively for those more gifted? The answer obviously is mutualism: the farmer needed labourers; the labourers needed the farmers organisational skills; a world of all farmers or all labourers would not work. (Thus hypothetically, a group which presented itself as a nation but did not correspond with this mutuality with its typical Bell Curve distribution with a median of approximately 100, could be concluded to be not a true nation, to never having had an identifiable living space and, in essence, to be parasitical.)

    Our old system of education explicitly recognised the Bell Curve through the 11+ exam and the channelling of children into different schools and streams of study. When comprehensivisation and the dumbed down examination system was introduced, it did not abolish the Bell Curve, but in pretending it did not exist, simply failed to teach children any longer according to their abilties and needs.

    We have in this country some fine universities, endowed in the past by great and good Englishmen for the benefit of their own kind and that of the nation as a whole. These illustrious men of the past would perhaps be surprised that their institutions have been thrown open to the world at large such that better educated students from abroad (often using our own pre-dumbed down education system as a model) can take the rightful places of deliberately hamstrung English students.

    An education system which recognises differences in aptitude and ability is one which attempts to ensure that each pupil is provided with the necessary tools in life to achieve the best for themselves to the benefit of their own and society at large. An education system which attempts to award the maximum number of certificates to the maximum number rather than equiping students for life, is fraudulent and worthless.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      While the 11+ exam may have recognised the bell curve it was very bad at determining where someone was on this curve at 11 and where they would be at 18.

      • Electro-Kevin
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        Social mobility has fallen since the removal of grammar schools.

        • uanime5
          Posted June 24, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

          Did social mobility rise when grammar schools were created? If so which group experienced the most upward mobility and which experienced the most downward mobility?

          • Anon
            Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

            I’d like to remind you, Uanime5 that we – apparently – need to import educated immigrants to do the work of our woefully unprepared youngsters.

            Grammar schools have all but been abolished and prizes for all offered as you wish and the dreadful results are for all to see.

  34. Alan Wheatley
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    In this television age we are failing to exploit its educational benefits.

    The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for Children are a good example of how subjects can be made interesting, and the point made clear and memorable. They are also a good example of how, in suitable circumstances, a large class size can work very well.

    In this computer age it could be that bright pupils can do all the learning they need without the inconvenience and disincentive of school.

  35. Alan Wheatley
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Since the cost of university education started to rise I have not heard one comment on the option of the Open University. Why?

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      Can you avoid paying tuition fees by going to an Open University?

      • alan jutson
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink


        No idea about fees for open university, but I see it is reported that foreign students are now defaulting on their student grants/loans.

        Seems they cannot be found now they have finsihed their education here, and returned home.

        Seems the debts now run into millions !

        I will not say I told you so, but it was so bloody obvious this would happen when the policy was announced you would have had to have been deaf, dumb and blind not to have figured this one out.

        Politicians don’t you just love them.

        More spending, more waste, bigger debt, another rise in taxes to pay for it all.

    • Mark
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Current OU fees are listed here:


      £15,000 for a degree if you live in England.

  36. uanime5
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    I’ve found the modular GCSEs and A-levels to be the better way to teach as you can focus on specific areas. Though it’s a pity that at most schools pupils can’t choose which modules they wish to study, unlike at university where students have a greater choice over which modules they study for their degree.

    Gove’s plan has a lot of problems. He talks about giving teachers the ability to set the curriculum, yet wants a single exam board which will set exams based on a specific curriculum. This means the only way to pass the exam is to teach to the exam board’s curriculum and anything else is a waste of time.

    Also his two tier exam system is unnecessary as it’s far better to have one exam and give all pupils the chance to get an A or E/G.

    • forthurst
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 12:09 am | Permalink

      “wants a single exam board which will set exams based on a specific curriculum.”

      Completely barking and potentially very dangerous, giving social engineers executive authority. Tertiary establishments should define the standards that they themselves wish to accept in order to avoid remedial courses for the ill-prepared.

    • Mark
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Many of my teachers managed to ensure that not only did we cover the ground of the exam syllabus, but also we ranged outside it to gain a broader appreciation of a subject (and often a more challenging level of study where we had mastered that required by the exams). They set their own curriculum, defined by their own enthusiasm.

  37. merlin
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Another aspect of modern education which has been created by the socialist state is the abolition of pass and fail, it is now impossible to fail anything and a certificate is rewarded regardless of your individual achievements. Everybody now passes exams, so how do you distinguish between students who have done well and those that haven’t, well the answer is you don’t. The logical outcome of this is that we all achieve the same standard of education and we will all pass something. This is another aspect of the comprehensive education system and how it tries to reduce individual attainment to the lowest common denominator. As I have stated previously comprehensive education should be phased out and replaced with a modern system of grammar schools and vocational/technical education. In this country most state students get a secondary modern education instead of a challenging grammar school education/technical education. If the system is not transformed soon we will become less and less competitive in the future and our standard of living will fall.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      Actually you can fail exams by not taking them or getting a very low mark.

      It’s possible to distinguish between students who have done well and those that haven’t based on the grade they got.

      Standards of living are falling because wages keep falling in real terms. Making the minimum wage into a living wage would quickly fix this.

  38. Rebecca Hanson
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    The problem with this new idea is that it’s yet another plan that’s come entirely from Michael Gove on his own with no connection to the professional representatives of the bodies in education. There was no need for it and no call for it. Nobody knows what it’s intended to achieve.

    Less well covered this week has been the new draft primary curriculum which is equally mad. After a year and a half in consultation it appears the Nick Gibb has been unable to get anyone to write a curriculum which embodies his philosophy that children should memorise disconnected facts rather than learn the underlying structures of mathematics so it appears he’s written it entirely himself – based on a framework for teaching (not a curriculum) from another country, mis-translating the year groups material relates to along the way. Certainly the key people who have advised him are denying any connection to the bulk of what’s finally arrived and, knowing them personally as I do, there is no way they could have had anything to do with big chunks of it as it directly contradicts everything those people have written in other spheres.

    The quality of leadership in education at present from Gove and Gibb is so excruciatingly awful it’s really hard to describe.

    This O-levels debacle is just a symptom of that.

    • Electro-Kevin
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 12:15 am | Permalink

      I don’t think it will happen, Rebecca.

      Where I probably differ with you is that I would like it to.

      • Rebecca Hanson
        Posted June 25, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        I’m not concerned with what might happen in the future Electro-Kevin. Systems and solutions are contextual.

        But right now we are two years into this parliament and it is time this education team grew up and stopped writing pet policy that hasn’t been thought through and will wreak havoc and started dealing with some of the huge issues which actually exist.

    • Lindsay McDougall
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 5:05 am | Permalink

      The return to O levels is intended to set the bar higher. Making A levels more difficult is the next step. We need a government inspectorate of examining boards to make sure this happens, with examining boards refusing to comply losing their licences.

      As for the ‘professional representatives of bodies in education’, don’t make me laugh. Who do you think has presided over the decline in educational standards for the past 40 years? Who has had all the crazy ideas about how to teach maths? Who has gone for quantity rather than quality in teaching staff?

      • Rebecca Hanson
        Posted June 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        By ‘the crazy ideas about how to teach maths’ I assume you mean the understanding that children need to learn the fundamental structures of mathematics and how to use the creatively and apply them…

        as opposed to the Gibb given truth that maths should be taught as memorized disconnected facts?

        Is Nick Gibb your hero because after nearly 2 years of consultation he has published a draft primary NC which is entirely based on the principles of rote learning and memorisation and is direct contradiction to all the professional advice he has been given Lindsay?

        • Lindsay McDougall
          Posted June 26, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink

          I have spent the last few months tutoring my younger daughter in order to enable her to improve her maths GCSE grade. Time after time I have told that she has to understand the notation and the logic of algebra, probability, trigonometry, vectors etc, and not just learn things by rote.

          Who is this Gibb bloke anyway? It doesn’t sound as if he is from the same stable as Mr Gove. If you want pupils to learn something by rote, try ‘The Lady of Shalot’. Then lend them the complete works of Tennyson and Edgar Alan Poe and challenge them to diagnose which poems and stories were written under the influence of opium.

        • stred
          Posted June 26, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

          Rebecca. When my son was 4, he was very bright and enjoyed joining in with his elder sister’s schoolwork. He could add and subtract from figures in millions and do simple multiplication. Then he started at the same school, where the Headmistress had told parents not to help their child to draw, as the picture would not be their own and it would damage their development.

          My son spent the first year with a rather gormless teacher who managed to get the class to think numbers up to ten, with the aid of pictures of animals in groups. At the end of the year he had become bored and no longer enjoyed the subject. I asked him what he had learned and he told me he had to learn what numbers meant. I asked what five meant. ” I think it just means five.” was his reply, holding up his fingers.

          After two years, my daughter could not read and was confused, but fooled us that she could by memorising books. I taught her myself using phonics and cards and thereafter she managed in this subject. It took 2 months. I have a video of them learning.

          After 18 years the educational establishmentis unchanged and a new generation of liberal tossers guard their positions in every school of education. Potential teachers who do not agree with their methods are weeded out. Practical teachers who do not toe the line are sacked.

          I have friends who are excellent teachers and resigned because of the lack of support from heads when facing discipline problems and incessant appraisals and initiatives. This was under the Labour government.

          So, don’t be surprised that many of us would not be sad to see the whole establishment kicked out and replaced with teachers from the rest of the world, who can teach maths and english to a higher standard than native speakers. Sorry, I know you mean well and think your training works, but just compare the results.

          • stred
            Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

            Have you forgotten to moderate this? It was late but the content is true.

    • alan jutson
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink


      Ever thought that all of the advice in previous years when consulting the so called experts has got us where we are today.

      We need someone who can cut through all of this crap and get an education sytem that is simple, can be policed through one examination board, and who the universities and business have faith in.

      I do not know if Gove is the person or not, but at least he seems to be trying to get back to a simple form of learning and testing.

      • Rebecca Hanson
        Posted June 25, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        If we are going to change our exams systems it is necessary to involve people who understand schools exams systems in the process of change.

  39. merlin
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    I also agree with other commentators on this site that students should all leave schools with the following basic skills:-

    1) to add, subtract, divide and multiply

    2) to be able to read and write the english language

    3) to be able to carry out a simple conversation with another person

    4) to dress smartly

    5) to be civil and well mannered

    6) to be tolerant of other people and other people’s views and opinions.

    I don’t think the average state educated student has really mastered any of the above.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      You’d be surprise how many people who went to a private school haven’t mastered all of the above, especially 5&6.

    • lifelogic
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      Number 6 is not always a good quality – when their views and opinions are clearly nonsense and even damaging. Perhaps indoctrinating children in absurd irrational beliefs for example.

    • Alan Wheatley
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      If 4, 5 & 6 are to be a part of the school curriculum then they should also be examined!

  40. merlin
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    My final point on this issue is to remember that under all 3 parties new grammar schools are now illegal, what a great way of improving educational standards. I find it inconceivable that any party should have introduced a bill to try to abolish grammar schools and to make it illegal to start news ones. The original grammar schools enabled working class students to really succeed through the state system.

    • uanime5
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      The original grammar schools only benefited the middle class, while those from poorer backgrounds tended to leave grammar schools with no qualifications. By contrast many people who went to secondary moderns went to university despite failing their 11+.

      • ChrisXP
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        What rubbish! I attended a grammar school where the majority of children were from working class backgrounds, including myself. They certainly didn’t leave that school with zero qualifications. I left with 8 O’s 2 A’s and went into work, going then onto HNC level in medical technology. Over two-thirds of my class chose to go to university and most of them got in to where they wanted to go. To say that such schools only benefited the middle class is out of order and quite wrong.

      • Mark
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        Nonsense. Children at good schools including grammar schools left with qualifications that were closely aligned to their abilities, which are not determined by the income of their parents as you imply. The numbers of children who left grammar schools without qualifications is vanishingly small, and will be the result of highly unusual circumstances such as contracting a debilitating illness.

        What is true is that children from poorer backgrounds used to be more reluctant to apply for university because their parents expected them to start earning after leaving school. Children who managed to get to university after going through a secondary modern are not likely to have come from poorer backgrounds. It is likely that they took A levels via e.g. a technical college.

    • Rebecca Hanson
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      The reason there is legislation in place to prevent the introduction of more selection into the state system is that history has show us that when such schools are introduced the ‘schools which are left behind’ rapidly collapse into being pernicious sinks schools which are hell for the children involved and very expensive to fix.

      I’m not against there being more selection in the cases where there has been proper local consultation and there are plans in place to ensure this does not happen or there is agreement that this negative consequence will not happen due to the changes proposed.

      I found myself at one of the extreme sink schools created by the Conservative’s ‘pay for the middle class kids to go to private schools to buy votes’ schemes in the 80s. The school my sister had gone to 9 years earlier (from which she had gone on to Oxford) had rapidly changed into the kind of hell where there was no teaching going on, the good teachers were sending classes home early to keep them away from the violence in schools, kids were taking whatever aerosol or glue bag they could get hold of and so on. This was, in the main, because the usual cohort of about 15 middle class kids in that school had all gone to private schools had taken their parental interest with them.

      • Bazman
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        I suspect that many believe this should be government policy. Sink schools and sink estates. At least you know where they are all at and can plan accordingly. Money well spent to keep the riff-raff where they are.

      • Mark
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

        With determination sink schools can be turned around, and not by dint of importing better off parents although parental attitudes clearly have a part to play. The trick is getting the teachers to do the right thing.

        • Rebecca Hanson
          Posted June 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

          Which is pretty much impossible when the schools with below average results are relentlessly being put into special measures.

      • Alan Wheatley
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

        From history we also know that secondary modern schools were not “sink” schools.

        The “sink” school you describe is not as a result of selection but because it is a lousy school, and the blame lies with those responsible for that school.

        • Rebecca Hanson
          Posted June 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

          It wasn’t a lousy school until it suddenly lost its top end kids and families through the assisted place scheme.

          In general schools start to have sudden severe problems when they stop having coherent top sets. There’s a sudden flight effect. Labour introduced many targeted strategies to prevent this happening such as ‘Excellence Cluster Funding’. These schemes were very effective.

          Because they were so effective it seems that Gove and co. don’t really understand what severe sink schools are and how they come to exist.

          It is possible to manage changing circumstances of a school if they are planned for and if appropriate funding is available to address key issues. With LAs gone how will this be done? There little evidence of planning for change at local level as Gove’s policies prevent this happening.

          • Bazman
            Posted June 25, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

            The bright kid where creamed off and the school was then left to the monkey ones and their parents. The teachers had enough of being zoo keepers and left to be replaced with teachers who could not get a job anywhere else? Sounds about right.

      • Lindsay McDougall
        Posted June 25, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        ‘Sink schools’, whether Secondary Modern or Comprehensive, tend to go with low income and low attainment in the community in which they are sited. My wife and I moved to Hook in Hampshire in 1987 and one of the factors was that it was a wealthy area with a good comprehensive school. With four children and my wife understandably not working, there was no way that we could afford private education. Luckily, we had a house to sell in West Wimbledon.

        Dare I suggest that there is a sort of horrible logic to it all. If you know that you have a school whose pupils have an average IQ of 90, there is not much point spending a lot of money on trying to educate them academically. Just give them good training in non-academic subjects, investing the money available in things such as woodwork and operating machines (yes, and needlework too), and box their ears when they misbehave. And do give regular IQ tests so that the bright children can be identified and removed from that environment. I would not, for example, oppose assisted places ar Roedean.

        • Rebecca Hanson
          Posted June 25, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

          This isn’t so practical in areas of lower density population Lindsay.

          Also in general now it is thought preferable to run comprehensives which properly cater for all students, offering many routes at 14+ (from the purely academic to the special needs/life skills routs with all sorts of options in between). It’s not practical to remove students as and when they show promised as the receiving school has to be configured an a way which offers each student a coherent education from the time they arrive. As different students show their potential at different times it’s best to put off categorisation as long as possible (which in practice seems to be at 14). It’s also a problem that if you remove the top students early the rest are less likely to come on rapidly due to the cohort mix effect. If you have a multistreamed comprehensive composite routes can be offered to better respond to individuals. These individual also get to grow up with a wide variety of other teenagers which brings benefits to their understanding of society.

          I went to a mixed bag of comprehensives before going on to Cambridge and I feel I understand Britain a lot better for having been fully part of society. My friends are from very ordinary backgrounds and they keep my feet firmly on the ground. I feel at ease going anywhere in society and meeting anyone. Why would my life have been better if I’d got and assisted place and gone to a private school? I clearly had a substantial positive effect on the aspirations of many of my friends at school and I think that is a good thing too.

    • Alan Wheatley
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      Grammar schools achieved in their own terms, but they are not the single solution for providing a good education for all children. What is your proposal for those children who do not go to a grammar school to “really succeed”?

  41. Robert K
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    The free market approach would be simple – allow schools and pupils to choose whatever exam type they feel would best represent their abilities. This would end up in a multiplicity of exam types. Universities and employers could decide for themselves how valid the qualfications are.
    Employers are already making a similar qualitative assessment when they choose between candidates from different universities. Is a 2:1 from Oxford better than a first from a more lowly-ranked university, for example.

  42. Electro-Kevin
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    I failed my A-levels in the 1980s (I went to a school which boasted robers and three murderers among my peers)

    I passed an A-level in the 1990s for a bet – 5 day’s study is all it took. (law)

    • Electro-Kevin
      Posted June 23, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

      Robbers, of course. We didn’t have a robing chamber at the ‘bog standard’ comp I went to.

      • Electro-Kevin
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 12:10 am | Permalink

        So what do we offer children that are not academically or technically inclined.

        This is why it is so important that what unskilled jobs there are are left open for them.

        Besides – there are always pathways for mature students. In fact it was easier for me to get academically qualified in later life than technically qualified. I used correspondence courses for A-level and then correspondence for the Chartered Institute of Transport. For others there is the OU.

        Apprenticeships close off for people at a relatively young age – perhaps this could be changed.

        • Electro-Kevin
          Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

          PS, I do wonder at the savings councils make by subcontracting out work at the local refuse dump.

          We now have efficient Polish gangs doing the work.

          Fine. But little Johnny, from the back of the class, now has no job that is suitable for him to do.

          The ‘savings’ on my council tax bill are now shifted on to my income tax bill instead. So now Little Johnny has nothing to do all day but get his face tattooed, drink cans of strong lager and wander the streets with his nasty little pitbull terrier.

          Mr Cameron launches an attack on welfarism – a good suggestion (it won’t happen though.) Unless we keep these jobs open for Little Johnny – and motivate him to work well – we are going to need to build a lot more prisons.

          • Bazman
            Posted June 27, 2012 at 5:55 am | Permalink

            In general externalising the costs onto society whether it be low pay, pollution and bad services with huge profits for the state paid privately owned provider.

        • uanime5
          Posted June 24, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

          I’d recommend removing the very low wage for apprenticeships. That would make them more attractive to people who currently work in a minimum wage job.

          • Anon
            Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

            An apprentice I know hasn’t been paid at all in his four years with a certain airline.

          • Bazman
            Posted June 27, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

            You think there is some sort of choice? Traditionally the apprentice was a cheap source of labour, new skills for employers and gave training to the apprentice, but this was not enough they wanted the labour and skills for free…
            Should skilled labour pay the same as unskilled as many employers want?

    • lifelogic
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Much work in the legal profession requires little more training than that and a bit of practice, a good manor with clients and an ability to read. But alas you have to qualify first.

  43. david englehart
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    why should any one in the professions need a university degree?
    three years of a mutual admiration society are not going to help solicitors or the like get on with their future clients or learn how to communicate with staff.
    i have long been a lone voice in this respect but getting a degree is a complet waste of money except in certain rare occupations.
    there is no substitute for a combination of learning ones core subjects and hands on experience.
    the idea that everybody should get a degree is a waste of money.

    • lifelogic
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      Especially if you look as some of the current degrees on offer.

    • alan jutson
      Posted June 24, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink


      I agree, as long as you can reach the standard required by your profession, then what does it matter how or where you learn it.

      Sure as eggs are eggs if you are not up to standard you will soon get found out.

  44. Alan Wheatley
    Posted June 24, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    I have a proposal for how to make education far better value for money.

    There is enormous scope for introducing computer based learning. Some of the techniques used in gaming could help. The advantages are:-

    (1) pupils can progress at their own rate;

    (2) there can be different paths so that the more able take the short route and the less able take a longer route where explanations are presented more slowly and in smaller steps;

    (3) revision can be introduced where it becomes apparent that something covered previously has not be grasped;

    (4) pupil progress is not inhibited be personality clashed between teacher and pupil;

    (5) there is no limit to “class size”.

    Obviously all learning can not be done by computer. So put the teaching resources where they are most needed and get rid of the teachers where the computer can do at least as good a job.

    As a pilot project, I suggest a learning module for ministers on how to deal with howls of protest from the teaching profession!!!!!!!! The trouble with teachers is that at best they are brilliant and at worst they are a curse.

  45. lojolondon
    Posted June 25, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Whenever you get hundreds of thousands of children achieving 5, 6, 7, 8 or more ‘A’s in their university entrance exam, whatever you want to call it, you know that it is not worth having.

  46. eroberlin angel
    Posted August 7, 2012 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    Chinese merchants travelling treacherous river rapids would redistribute their wares across many vessels to limit the loss due to any single vessel’s capsizing.

  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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