Can one size ever fit all?


Marion Gibbs asks whether one single type of exam can ever fully reflect the entire range of skills and intelligence of our student population.

We have an unresolved moral dilemma at the heart of our education system which has not been properly addressed as we move into yet another stage of fundamental reforms. In this country we have an enormous amount of baggage about social class and elitism, which seems to be leading us to design an education system where everyone is expected to jump through the same hoops.

Before too long, the age for the end of compulsory education will have risen to 18, but 6th form provision has become increasingly focused on academic subjects and preparation for university, while many vocational courses have been discredited and withdrawn. 

Everyone agrees that we need workers who are trained to a very high level in practical skills and crafts such as plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing, motor mechanics, building and catering, but as a nation we have not invested sufficiently in these areas nor given them appropriate recognition. 

We need engineers of many different kinds: those who can invent things, design them, manufacture them, use them and maintain them – these do not all require the same skill-set or educational course.

In recent years there has been great pressure for as many young people as possible to go to university, regardless of their interest in high level academic study. Other paths have too often been regarded as making young people into “second class citizens”. As a result, we now rely heavily on overseas workers to perform many highly skilled functions in this country, while we have many unemployed young people who are not especially qualified for anything.

Many other countries have prestigious high-performing technical schools and specialist technical universities and technical colleges. In this country the tri-partite system designed at the end of the 1950s never took off. We ended up with secondary modern schools and grammar schools and very few technical schools. 

The introduction of the comprehensives was intended to end such division and ensure that one size did fit all, but it is very difficult to provide for all talents and skills in a single institution. Selection is anathema to most politicians and many educationalists. It is seen as creating a group who ever after regard themselves as failures, as opposed to the successful elite. It is true that not all children develop at the same time and in the same way, so early selection can be imperfect. However, why are we so exercised about selection and elitism? 

We need a new vocabulary. Students should be able to specialise, perhaps at age 14 or 16, and choose courses and institutions which match their strengths and prepare them with the skills, knowledge and understanding they need to advance in their chosen career. 

We have lived with “specialist” schools for a long time – but most have just developed a curriculum strength which is driven by teacher expertise and funding rather than students’ special talents. Some new schools are now much more focused on high quality vocational skills, but we need more of them and the latest proposals for education reform have very little to say on the matter. 

Some readers may be wondering what gives me the right to comment on such matters, since I am head of a school which offers no vocational qualifications, although quite a few practical skills. But that is precisely my point. 

We should be having a much more vocal national debate about all kinds of education and we should be recognising that apples and pears are just different fruit – neither is intrinsically superior. We need to shout much more loudly about the existing high-quality vocational courses and achievements in this country and make them something to which more young people aspire. Specialist technical colleges should be thriving in the future and providing an education valued as highly, or more so, than the EBacc.

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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