The election campaign is in full swing but relatively little mention has been made of secondary education (other than careers guidance). I am not sure whether to be pleased or concerned. On the one hand, the uncertainty about future plans for A levels and sixth form provision is a cause for concern when trying to plan for next year; on the other hand, it would be a great relief to think that politicians had decided to leave education to the professionals and not make it a political issue. Unlikely, I suspect!
Meanwhile, as I move towards retirement in the summer, I have been turning out my study at home and what a revelation that has been. There has been enormous change in the 40-plus years in which I have been teaching or working elsewhere in education.
I was a chief examiner for the introduction of GCSEs in 1988. I have been excavating all the paperwork (now safely shredded) from that time. The preparation for the merger of CSE and O level went on for at least three years and issues such as the introduction of positive marking were debated long and hard. In comparison, preparations for more recent examination changes seem rather perfunctory. I have also decided to jettison my vast store of past papers at every level in my subject; they clearly indicate that examinations were much more demanding in the 1960s and 70s.
The reports I worked on when an HMI and paperwork from the conferences I attended have also come to light. Interestingly, or should I say unsurprisingly, the issues in the late 1980s and early 1990s were much the same as now. For example, I was involved in investigating standards over time in various subjects at both GCSE and A level, parity between vocational and academic qualifications, and the effectiveness of small sixth forms. I left HMI after Ofsted became all-conquering, as it seemed to me that a punitive accountability regime had replaced a more supportive one. Recently, there has been some discussion about abolishing or radically reforming and downsizing Ofsted and the various inspection regimes – one can only live in hope.
If I were writing a manifesto for secondary education, I would be aiming at simplicity. Let’s abolish all the rival examination boards where commercial interests and making money loom too large. A single national examination board with an obligation to provide an alternative syllabus or specification in every major subject would be a good start.
Examination fees should be greatly reduced so that schools could use the money for valuable educational resources. A cap should be placed on the number of examinations for which any individual student might be entered (with a single national examination board this would be easy to monitor) and schools would be obliged to provide a rich programme of education which did not lead to an examination, but was acknowledged on all leaving certificates. This would include the creative subjects, sports and community action for all. Partnerships between schools across the sectors would be encouraged to help make such provision a reality.
A basic school leaving certificate would indicate reaching a certain level in English and mathematics and having engaged well in the aforementioned activities and having studied other courses.
An advanced leaving certificate would include a good level in English, mathematics and science, with a fair achievement in a modern language, ICT and any humanities subject as well as the above. All university courses would start in January: no applications would be made until A level results were known and all students would be required to undertake citizen service in the autumn after leaving school. Ofsted would be abolished and a much simpler and less punitive accountability regime would be put in place. The publication of league tables would become a criminal offence! No school would be allowed to be run as an exclusive faith school and no school would be allowed to be run for commercial gain.
Flights of fancy, maybe, but perhaps just as valid as other political manifestos.
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.