Going beyond what is expected.
What do we expect from the education of 16-19 year olds in England? Judging from the funding available, the qualifications on offer and the accountability measures which inevitably steer our work, our national aspirations for this phase of education are fairly low.
Any outside observer seeking to understand how the English system prepares its older teenagers for life, citizenship, higher education and work would find it hard to explain. The lack of any common system or curriculum aims and the meagre resources available to fund 16 and 17 year olds compared to other phases of education do not suggest that the English value the education of this age group very much. And yet, this is the point in most people’s educational journey where things should really come together and make sense, where the knowledge and skills we have acquired start to connect with the big decisions we need to make about our lives and our engagement with the world.
Let’s be grateful that this age group are expected to participate in education or training at all and that we also have ‘programmes of study’ which define a full-time educational experience. But our 16-19 curriculum has no requirement of breadth or balance, no requirement to continue studying the national language beyond GCSE or any other language for that matter, no requirement to develop a basic understanding of political systems, institutions or history or to be introduced to key aspects of human culture.
Instead we have an incoherent patchwork of providers who can choose their own students by being as selective or as specialist as they want and no requirement to have a sufficiently broad offer in every part of the country. Better qualified 16 year-olds can choose between a 3 or 4 subject programme or a more specialist advanced applied general or technical course. The less successful generally have fewer options and the single biggest policy push for this age group has been to promote the technical, pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship route which is essentially work-based. While work-based learning is of great value, this does feel like giving up on general education for those young people.
We need to be more ambitious. We should be aiming to do more than the minimum. We should be making the case for the kind of education which all young people deserve, which prepares them for cultural, social and economic participation as full members of society. An education which doesn’t require binary choices at 16 between breadth and depth or general and vocational. An education which promotes the ability to question, to challenge, to disagree, to argue and persuade, to reflect, to evaluate and to change one’s mind as well as to participate actively and productively in society and at work.
In short, we need something like a National Baccalaureate for all. Sadly, many of the tools to help us construct this are being withdrawn. AS subjects such as Citizenship, Humanities and Science in Society which could help broaden students’ programmes are going. We still have the Higher and Extended Project qualifications which can help to promote depth of study and research skills. Broad and balanced programmes like the International Baccalaureate do exist but they are prohibitively expensive to run under our current funding regime.
While we need to make the case for adequate funding for this age group, we also need to be convinced of the case for the kind of expansive general education which this better funding would allow. In the meantime, we may need to be creative in developing the content which can enrich our students’ education, working beyond the minimal programmes of study and with the support of universities, schools and employers who have such a large stake in young people’s success.
One thing is certain, if we base our ambitions merely on what is expected of us we will achieve just that. And that’s really not enough.
Life in the qualification market (May 2016)
Accessing the IB diploma (February 2016)
More sixth formers doing research projects (February 2016)
Education: what’s it all for? (January 2016)
No austerity of the imagination (July 2015)
Glasto-Bacc (June 2015)
W. Kandinsky: Black and violet (1923)