Tony Blair listed his three priorities in government thus. John Major, his predecessor, said he agreed, though not necessarily in that order.
If there is one subject that is likely to be misrepresented or subject to a terribly misinformed debate it is education. So many times the middle aged politicians evoke their own version of what education should be like, based upon their own experiences and prejudices.
It is a subject that is never far from the headline, be it over standards, the curriculum, the entry to universities or the debate about grammar schools.
For us as a business organization, the biggest issue we keep facing from businesses across the North of England, is a need for a rethink about what our education system is preparing future generations for.
I also went to a Grammar School and got a good classical education. I didn’t like it, but I recognize it was good. I don’t think that the debate should be restricted to its merits or otherwise though. My concern isn’t for kids who are good enough to get a good education because they pass an exam at 11. No, it’s an outrage at the dismal schooling for those that can’t. The secondary modern schools were the disgrace of this era. That the comprehensive schools that replaced them took on their worst traits is the greater tragedy.
I do see evidence that things have improved, but our system is far from perfect. I’m a school governor in the area of greater Manchester where I live. I see at close hand the dedication and professionalism of teachers and administrators in schools. There is a continual drip feeding of nonsense and urban myths about
One of the constant complaints I bear witness to is the challenge of going to university. Tony Blair set a target that our economy needed a far greater proportion of our young people educated to a degree level in order for Britain to retain a competitive edge. When I went to a red brick university in 1985 I know I was in a very fortunate 10 per cent who had that chance. But for that to be extended requires a sharing of the burden of who pays for it. That’s the flipside of the argument that isn’t as well articulated. And when kids factor in whether it is worth it, they have to make a decision as to whether they want to be in the 40 per cent who will probably get the best jobs.
Where the curriculum does come up woefully short is in the provision of technical IT courses. The current GCSE qualification, bluntly, is a test in Facebook and using Microsoft products. Most 14 year olds should be able to pass it while updating their status on the bus on the way to school in the morning while playing Minecraft. It’s not just the school’s fault that kids are offered this nonsense, as opposed to teaching coding skills, it’s a tragedy that there aren’t the teachers.
Another area of education that requires greater work is that of employment readiness. I’ve been involved in mock interviewing exercises at schools and at the University of Central Lancashire. Some of the ‘candidates’ really do come up very short and need a sharp wake-up call. But then life’s like that. It’s only when confronted by the real world that many young people see what is expected of them. But my firm view is a greater involvement by local employers in all schools careers programmes is essential.
A final point, educationalists often look to that shining example of success in the Far East, Singapore. Rightly, the island state is lauded for achieving high standards in the basics and for educating to a very high standard. It has prompted supporters of Michael Gove to recognize its commitment to the raw basics and the model for Britain. But now that the country has made a transition to a knowledge economy, the next phase the Singaporeans are seeking to evolve towards in their own teaching matrix is to encourage creativity. And where are they looking for that? That’s right, Britain.