Thursday 20 August 2009

The annual 'dumbing down' debate isn't helping anyone

Another August, another set of GCSE and A-level results released. Now just wait for the onslaught of commentators arguing exam results are not worth the paper they are printed because children are achieving higher grades than ever before. Hang on. Doesn’t this mean the state education system is working?

Apparently not.

Despite grades rising across the board year on year, the recent report from Alan Milburn shows there are still massive barriers against children from state schools accessing top professions in the country. For all the media flurry, it hasn’t really told us anything we didn’t know already - that privately educated children earn more money, get better jobs and generally have a higher standard of living compared to their state school counterparts – but it did highlight some uncomfortable figures for those that believe we are in the age of Equality of Opportunity.

With 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors and 45% of top civil servants having attended private school, even though they account for just 7% of all pupils, there is something institutionally skewed here in favour of those who can afford to pay for education.

Lord Mandelson, having now swallowed up higher education into his business empire, has proposed that in order to iron it out, universities should follow in the path of Leeds University who are offering lower grade acceptances to those from certain deprived regions. This, it is hoped, will increase the number of state school children applying to leading universities and go some way to reducing institutional inequalities in employment.

But this is just a quick fix. It plays right into the ‘dumbing down’ argument. And therefore, won’t work.

If you read interviews about why children don’t apply to universities, a common response is that they feel they won’t fit in. By giving candidates a green pass to jump to the front of the admissions queue will do nothing for self belief in your own intelligence if you didn’t make the grade everyone else did. And it certainly won’t help when sitting around a seminar table of debating team pros from private school and expected to contribute with similar confidence

Short of getting rid of all private schooling - after 12 years of Labour professing ‘choice’ in everything, and now with Tory Councils talking of propping up parents to pay for their fees, this is never going to happen. We should however, be promoting integration between private and state sectors wherever possible. Oh, and what the hell, academies, faith, foundation and special needs - lets mix it all up. This would mean private schools opening up facilities to the community and other schools in the area, something the Charity Commission is trying to make a requirement as we speak (and the ISC are fighting against). But this also means sharing ideas about best practice between teachers, tackling snobbery at both ends, and taking kids away together to view leading universities before any decisions about A –Levels have been made. And it means competing in joint sports days, providing access to music events and instruments, taking part in debating contests, or putting on fete’s and jumble sales together in a way that visibly and actively integrates children and their parents from all socio-economic backgrounds and across a variety of educational sectors.

Leaving it until its time to apply for university is leaving it much too late to intervene. Increasing access to professions for people across all social backgrounds is more than just passing exams and getting into the right university. Any education policy designed for this effect must be tailored towards learning the soft skills children need to succeed in life and the social skills to deliver them. But more than that. Schools should expose children to the reality of diversity within society, in a safe and supported environment, so they can make informed decisions about who and what they want to be when they leave.

Guest post by Genna Stawski


Unknown said...

Genna: I completely agree with you. We allow massive inequalities in educational opportunity up to 18 and then, lo and behold, we find that these massive inequalities are reflected in the class composition of those going to university. Universities obviously have an important role in encouraging children from disadvantaged backgrounds to think about University as an option and to apply. But if we really want to do something about the inequality at this stage, we have no choice but to address the inequalities that apply from before birth to age 18. We cannot expect university admissions to somehow magically offset the effects of childhood inequality.

Robert said...

We will be talking about the same things in twenty fifty sixty years time, until you rid this country of poverty it will be the same every year.

Our grandson school said he is doing French O levels he needs to go to France, the school trip for a week cost £750, I get £86 in benefits where the hell do I get £750. I give up