University

Just a short one today.

I am currently reading an article in The Independent about Cambridge University.  You can find the article here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/easier-entries-would-be-cruel-warns-cambridge-8120826.html .  Their admissions tutor, Dr Geoff Parks, claims it would be a “cruel experiment” to lower entry requirements for students from disadvantaged backgrounds so that they can study at Cambridge.

It’s not just cruel; it’s patronising.  How can we encourage kids from poorer backgrounds – and those from state schools in general – to do better in their A Levels by lowering entry requirements?  By telling them that we have to make it easier for them?   That they don’t need to try so hard because we don’t believe they can hack it and we’ll move the goalposts for them anyway?

It is cruel, too.  I won’t lie and say I wasn’t a high achiever at school.  I was.  I was in top sets for everything throughout my school years.  Particularly during my primary years, the ‘clever kids’ were often paired with the ‘not so clever kids’ in the hopes that the achievements of the top set pupils would rub off on those lower down the pecking order.  In my view this does not work well but feel free to contradict me.  Those who struggled with learning just felt further marginalised by their perceived lack of ability.  There is no magic transfer of talent from one pupil to another.  And to place students with lower exam marks into the snakepit of cutthroat achievement a la Cambridge could be a disaster, both for the students’ career prospects and their own wellbeing.

The only solution is to improve education standards at all levels of education – primary, secondary and beyond.  We must educate better – not just in academic terms, but also in the options we offer to these students.  I have written before about the obsession my sixth-form college had with pushing every single student into university and this was done, in my cynical opinion, to boost the college’s reputation.  Academia is not for everyone and we have to relinquish the view that it is.  It is not a failure to choose a path that does not lead to Cambridge.  I truly believe we all have talents.  The hard bit is finding the right channel for those talents.  Secondary schools and sixth-form colleges need to improve careers services within their institutions so those that do not easily take to academia can be offered different routes, whether that be vocational or something completely different.

(This was meant to be shorter than it is.  Oh well.)

C

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Skills & education

I read with interest this article during my lunch break: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/dec/13/social-survey-thatcherite-britain?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038.  It makes some interesting points about a renaissance in Thatcherite thinking and gives some intriguing statistics about the New Labour project.

However, it is only one short paragraph in this article that I am concerned with:

“In 1996, about a half (56%) thought schools taught basic skills well, rising to nearly three-quarters (73%) by 2008. But there is still deep concerns about the effectiveness of schools in preparing young people for work, with only half thinking schools do this well.”

From my experiences in both the state education system and working in the welfare-to-work industry, I have found vocational skills trianing to be severly lacking in this country.  Successive Labour governments were very keen to get low-income children into higher education, despite the obvious fact that not all children are suited to academia.

I left secondary school in 2004, and sixth form in 2006, and during both these tenures I saw time and time again individuals being bulldozed into considering university when perhaps their talents were better suited to practical, skilled work.  I attended an excellent sixth form college, repeatedly rated as 3rd best in the UK, but even here I found a lack of support for students who had no desire to go to university.  The onus was always on applying to UCAS.  Pressure wasn’t just put onto lower-achieving students, but also high achievers too, who, I felt, were forced into considering applications to Oxford or Cambridge.  I resisted such pressure and went on to get my degree at the University of Manchester.

During my time working for a training and skills provider, I saw swathes of young unemployed people, many who were male and from low-income households, pass through our doors with barely any idea of what a CV was.  Their IT skills were basic, their communication skills lacking, and they had little to no idea what employers in 2011 are looking for in a prospective employee.

If there is a problem with our education system then it is that some of our schools and colleges are too preoccupied with ratings and reputations measured only by university applications.  We simply must do more to ensure there is help and advice available for all students, whether they wish to attend university, take up a trade or an apprenticeship, or become an entrepreneur.  By addressing these problems, I think we can better prepare young people for working life and help bolster our economy by diversifying our skills base.  Furthermore, we must do more to ensure help is available from job centres and other third party skills organisations so that we can advise and help upskill those unemployed individuals who have been left behind by the education system.

Voting

This blog seems to be turning into a series of rants about what’s wrong with the British political system today.  Yesterday’s blog got me thinking about voting and the problems we’ve experienced in this country, which invariably relate to disillusionment and ignorance.

Voting turnout has been on the decline since the early 1990s, and dropped to a historic low in 2001 when turnout of registered voters was just 59.4 per cent.  In 2005, this figure rose to 61.3 per cent, and in 2010 rose again to 65.1 per cent.  Turnout for the recent referendum on the voting system – 42.2 per cent – exposed a deep apathy  in our country towards the country’s political system.   Many people expressed confusion about the referendum, its purpose and its consequences.  This is a complex issue and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.  But how can we ask our citizens to vote on electoral reform when so many don’t even understand what electoral reform is?

I doubt we’ll ever see a return to the days when turnout reached high percentages during the 1950s.  But I think there is one fundamental change to be enacted within our education system which could improve both voter turnout and wider political engagement.

Quite simply, some form of politics/sociology/citizenship module needs to become compulsory in secondary schools.  I remember doing some work on citizenship during my high school years, alas it was neither memorable nor in-depth.  Young people need to be taught from an early age about the basics of politics – our institutions, their history, elections, political parties, and wider concepts within the political echelon (ideas of freedom, equality etc).  No doubt this will lead to criticisms along the lines of “brainwashing kids” and encouraging them to lean left or right depending on the personal political views of their teacher.  Steps would need to be taken to keep this in check.  I know from experience how this can happen.  My A Level politics teacher was unashamedly left wing and this did have an effect on our class.  By the time we left college, I would say 80% of our class had left or centre left views.

Not all pupils will enjoy this, and many will hate it and find it boring, but kids say the same things about a variety of school subjects.  I loathed maths (and still do).  But this knowledge has to be provided, at least.  Should pupils choose to reject it, then that is their prerogative.  We tried.  We gave them some basic knowledge about what politics means and how it affects our day-to-day lives.  Until we offer this as a mandatory part of secondary school education, we will continue to fail future generations.