That the gap in attainment between more and less advantaged secondary school pupils in England has widened for the second year in a row is a dismal reflection on Conservative schools policies. Government rhetoric has consistently been about improving the educational experiences and life chances of poorer pupils. Here is evidence not only of a lack of progress in this direction, but a reversal. At 0.4%, the change is small. But the new data provides proof, along with the rise of “off-rolling” and the crisis in special needs education, that the overall thrust of secondary education policy over the past decade has been harmful to many children’s interests.
There are several aspects to the programme of changes spearheaded by the former education secretary Michael Gove and his then adviser Dominic Cummings. These include the content of the new GCSEs, the method of assessment (mainly exams) and the 1-9 grading system with its confusing thresholds (while 4 is one sort of pass – roughly equivalent to the old C – 5 is a “strong pass”).
Then there is the Ebacc, as ministers named their suite of preferred subjects: science, maths, English, history or geography, and a foreign language. Introduced a decade ago, this combination is still only taken by 40% of pupils, and attainment in some subjects is stubbornly low (the average score in foreign languages is 2.28). Confronted with such figures, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that children are being set up to fail. Meanwhile, the curriculum overall has narrowed, as entries in arts subjects have dropped (although last year saw a small improvement) and many schools have stretched GCSE courses over three years in order to maximise results.
The new Ofsted framework, with its focus on quality of education overall, is meant to counter this tendency. But what makes sense in theory is hard in practice. Already, there have been complaints that inspectors lack the necessary expertise across all subjects. Previously successful heads caught out by the changing criteria have been left devastated.
There is no immediate or obvious solution to this set of problems. Instead, current woes point to the inadequacy of a whole mode of thinking about education, according to which anything that cannot be audited can appear virtually without meaning – a government-led mindset that inevitably filters through schools and to their pupils. These days, many children are awarded GCSE-equivalent grades from age 11. For low achievers, scoring 1s and 2s, such marks can only be demoralising.
Of course, this is not all that goes on in classrooms. Teachers are interested in what children in different ability groups say and think; and in helping them to develop their ideas and capacities. The poet Kate Clanchy uses Twitter as a showcase for her pupils’ poems. (She also points out that, under current arrangements, creativity too often goes unrewarded.)
This needs to change. Limiting children’s choices at 14 was never the solution to entrenched educational inequality, which is closely tied to poverty. Nor was making GCSEs harder and more exam-focused, or Ofsted inspections tougher. On the contrary, these changes, combined with an 8% cut in spending per pupil over the past decade, have had the damaging effect of driving teachers away from the profession. There is no reason at all why a lighter touch from ministers, and a less rigid expectations, should lead to any diminution of standards in the 2020s. On the contrary, a push towards lifting the spirits of teachers and pupils, while broadening teaching and learning, could reap unexpected rewards.