The challenges of education until 18

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Soon all students will have to remain in education and training until 18. But will be able to cater effectively for them all, asks Marion Gibbs.

I have just spent the early part of this evening helping to run a meeting for a highly motivated group of teachers. They have come together from a dozen or so schools in Southwark and neighbouring boroughs and are working on projects in English, languages, chemistry and physics.

Some are fairly new to teaching, others are very experienced, but they have a shared passion: a desire to provide the best possible learning and teaching for their students and to exchange and share their ideas. The buzz was palpable as they discussed what works well in the classroom, what works less successfully, what students find difficult, and what non-specialist teachers might find particularly challenging.

We have brought these teachers together under the auspices of the Southwark Schools Learning Partnership to undertake a project as part of the London Schools Excellence Fund (LSEF) two-year programme. The idea is to produce innovative teaching materials and methodology which can then be promulgated more widely across London schools.

These materials are focusing on the requirements of the new GCSE specifications and the preparation for these in key stages 3 and 4. The teachers come from both the state and independent sectors and they are working together with a common purpose. Sadly, this will not hit any headlines in the mainstream media, nor impinge upon the politicians or parts of the Department for Education and Ofsted who delight only in trying to emphasise and promote division between our sectors.

Good teachers really care about education and want the best for all children – not just those in their own school. If we want to improve our education system then we must all work together to share the best of existing practice and to develop new and exciting ways of doing things.

This week, I was intrigued to read that the chief inspector is suggesting a system of separate types of schools suited to different talents and abilities at age 14. He recognises that the raising of the school leaving age to 18 years, without making any particular specialist provision for those who are not so academically inclined, might lead to problems. His proposed solution? Establish groups of schools under a single umbrella – one specialising in vocational, one for the highly academic and so forth – and separate students into these at age 14.

When the grammar schools and secondary modern schools were established under the Butler Act in the 1940s, the idea was to create a tripartite system, with technical schools bridging the gap. Unfortunately, very few were ever set up.

In Germany, meanwhile, the tripartite system flourished and their engineering and technical expertise, not to mention craftsmanship, prevailed through much of the second half of the 20th century. 

But can we go back now? Is there too much public resentment against the idea of dividing students by ability? I have often been told by politicians and their advisors that one of the problems with the independent sector is that many schools select their students by ability and this is anathema to those in power. Who knows whether the chief inspector’s idea will come to fruition, but he has correctly identified a problem – how do we deal with the cohorts of 17 and 18-year-olds who are now obliged to remain in education or training for a longer time? 

Obviously, this helps the unemployment statistics and having a better educated population will benefit the economy and the students. However, I cannot help but think that we have devoted too few resources to less able students and allowed changes to academic examinations to occupy the spotlight. Perhaps we need another form of the LSEF to establish projects to address the needs of these more reluctant learners and to support the teachers who are working with them?

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


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