Success in Schools, or Skills for Life?

It is that time of year again when children and their carers are waiting anxiously for GCSE and A level results; it is a period of celebration for the majority and disappointment for some.Another tradition at this time of year is for people to question the quality and worth of these qualifications with words like grade inflation being used and with many saying examinations were much harder years ago. In addition there appears to be developing a league table of acceptable subjects for getting into our top universities.

The Secretary of State for Education has not even waited for the publication of the results and has already expressed the view that there is a need to review the secondary school qualifications and make some of them tougher and more rigorous. I would agree that we need to provide qualifications of worth and, as a developing knowledge economy, we need increasingly large numbers of highly qualified skilled people. However, if rigour just means more examinations and fewer assessments, is this rigour or just a way of rewarding those who are good at examinations?

The Secretary of State ignores the fact that we are actually very good at educating skilled people and have some of the top universities in the world, albeit we are still failing to produce enough science and engineering graduates – the so called STEM subjects.

However, what this annual debate does not address is the fact that a significant number of our young people are failed by the educational system: those who have no qualifications and those with minimal qualifications. Two recently published reports question the success of our educational system.

The first report is published by the University and College Union, which presents a national picture of the number of adults without any qualifications. This report “…ranks the 632 parliamentary constituencies in England, Scotland and Wales according to the percentage of working age people (16-64) who have no qualifications”.

In this report they found that “… In some constituencies, such as Glasgow East and Birmingham Hodge Hill, more than one in three people have no qualifications, compared to just one in 50 in others such as Brent North and Romsey and Southampton North” [i]. The failure for these people will, in large part, be linked to other issues such as poverty and other indices of deprivation. ‘Failure’ is perhaps being concentrated in certain areas around the U.K., excluding some from aspects of life that most of us take us for granted.

The other report was published by the think tank Demos and they focused on ‘the forgotten half’ “… the estimated 50 per cent of school leavers not continuing to higher education”. In this analysis they predict a youth unemployment rate at 20 per cent for the next five years with this 50 per cent group being the ‘most vulnerable’. They feel this group is not being equipped for work and is merely entering a “revolving door of training programmes”, falling between statutory and charitable services. The authors:

“…urge that the education system be less focused on pushing young people through the hoops of assessment that lead on to higher education, and more focused on equipping them with the capabilities to progress through the labour market”(21)[ii].

The report looks at skill development as well as relationships with employers in all sectors of the economy. It requires policy makers to look at both the qualifications and ‘life’ skills that are needed, including literacy, numeracy and other more ‘soft skills’ including using service learning approaches, approaches that are widely used in universities linking ‘volunteering’ to reflective learning.

As the economy continues to struggle we need to be looking at the ways we educate our young people and we need to change our focus away from obsessions with celebrity, the ‘quick win’, to developing our communities. Although we must celebrate the success of our graduates and high achievers we must also not ignore others, encouraging all young people to achieve and put in place an encouraging society that provides people with the skills to survive and prosper in a complex world. Finland’s educational success is, in part, down to a more holistic view of education that looks more systemically at what are the needs of young people and not just at educational qualifications.

[i] New analysis highlights the great education divide across Britain (accessed 25/7/2011)[ii] Birdwell J., Grist, M. and Margo J.(2011) The forgotten half (accessed 25/7/2011

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