Reconstruction in an age of demolition

A national project is always a ‘work in progress’ as implied by the title of Carol Ann Duffy’s brilliant performance piece based on the words of people across the country during the EU referendum campaign.

So what sort of work is our national project? A collective effort to build a better society or a ‘war of all against all’? Reconstruction or demolition?

It does feel like we are going through a self-destructive phase as a country. Much of our national effort is being devoted to dividing and demolishing rather than unifying and building. Examples abound, but the colossal demolition job represented by Brexit is perhaps the most obvious; committing us to years of dismantling for little evident benefit while also hardening and deepening divisions in our society. Under the circumstances it seems reasonable to ask: what is our strategy for repair and reconstruction?

Another example of national self-harm is the continuing disinvestment from our public services and the widening inequality it leads to. One recent story in the education press crystallised the inequality of educational opportunities for young people in England. It contrasted on the one hand the 16-year-old apprentice groundskeeper for whom general education will effectively cease, paid £3.50 an hour by a private fee-paying school to tend their extensive playing fields with on the other hand other 16 year olds attending that school at a cost of £35,000 per year – safely on track for several years more education and on the high road to a well-remunerated career. The chasm of opportunity between these 16-year-old is as wide as that between tower block residents in North Kensington and their more affluent neighbours in Notting Hill. If we find this shocking, what is our strategy for repair and reconstruction?

I was asked to review the current condition of post-16 education within the wider political context. In many ways, 16-19 education in England is a case study of deconstruction and disinvestment and it offers a warning of where pre-16 education could be heading. It is characterised by selection, marketisation, low expectations and inadequate investment. To take these in turn:


We are plagued by binary thinking about learners and providers: ‘top’ universities, ‘academic’ students, the ‘skills sector’, ‘technical’ qualifications etc. These categories limit our thinking about young people’s capacities, they narrow horizons and undermine the idea of a universal entitlement to a broad general education. If we believe in a comprehensive system, we need to take care not to buy into these binary models which dictate what ‘kind’ of students we serve and what ‘kind’ of pathways we offer them. Rather than describing our learners as ‘bright’ or ‘less able’, ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’, comprehensive colleges like mine can offer countless stories of students who left school as ‘failures’ at 16 and have subsequently reached university after starting on level 2 or even level 1 qualifications.


We operate in a market free-for-all where institutions decide what to offer and how selective to be and where there is no coherent planning to respond to need. The growth in the number of smaller, niche providers leads to consumer confusion and a rush to the ‘elite’ end of the market. At a time of limited resources, too much spending is tied up in wasteful duplication rather than improving the offer. New providers proliferate, leading both to over-capacity and lack of choice. The result is both Knowsley and Newham; the one with no A-level capacity available within the local authority area and the other with too much.

Low expectations:

We are simply not offering our 16-19-year-olds the full-time, rounded education which would equip them properly for life in the 21st century. Whatever the pathway, none of our typical 17h a week programmes are providing either the breadth or the specialisation which young people need. No other developed country allows its teenagers to stop studying their national language – whether on a general or a vocational programme and we have no expectation of citizenship or cultural education post-16. We need to raise our expectations of what all young people should be studying and could achieve. This could be done via a national baccalaureate which guaranteed access to the full curriculum; allowing for breadth, choice, exploration and specialisation. Having higher expectations does not necessarily require more high-stakes testing; putting students under even more pressure is not the best way to raise their educational achievements.

Inadequate investment:

16-18 provision is at the bottom of a funding ‘Grand Canyon’ with less being spent per student than in the school and higher education phases on either side. We may have made the transition to a fair national funding formula some years ago but we are simply not using it to invest enough in this critical phase of education. Rather than simply moaning about how underfunded we are, we need to make the case for ‘something for something’; investment in the more expansive and ambitious education we want for all our students.

Developing the alternative:

What of the alternative education policies which were on offer at the election? Labour was right to focus on universal free public education as an entitlement. And above all else, the idea of a National Education Service offered an answer the question about how we might bridge divides and reconstruct a proper national system – something which most developed countries take for granted. The party now needs to flesh out the concept and populate it with some strong signature policies, for example a single status for all schools, a national baccalaureate for all by age 19, a lifelong learning entitlement and a national civic service. Labour should also be drafting a single short Education Bill to create a new system in order to be ready to legislate immediately on taking office. As with the creation of the National Health Service, there will be lots of practical issues to be resolved about how accountability is shared and resources allocated. As with the NHS, a National Education Service will face many challenges. The important thing is to make a start on the construction of a system which we can then debate passionately as we continue to shape it.

All around us, the deconstruction of public education continues apace while we all work hard to do the best we can in our own sphere of influence. How much more worthwhile would it be if we could all work together to lay the foundations of a better system. That would be the kind of constructive ‘work in progress’ we could all sign up to.

One of the reasons for calling the 2017 general election was ostensibly to strengthen national unity. But the result has shown that simply speaking the language of unity is not enough, we need policies and actions which are genuinely capable of healing our divisions and building on the best of our capacities. We need to switch our default setting from demolition to construction.

Based on a speech made at the Annual Conference of the Socialist Educational Association (SEA) on June 24th 2017.

See also:

Education 2022: market or system? (June 2017)

Dear candidates (April 2017)

Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)

Going beyond (October 2016)

16-19 education: from independence to interdependence (April 2016)

Starting to think about a National Education Service (September 2015)

For a National Education Service (July 2015)

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The best of things

We were delighted to officially open our new building on 30th June in the company of our guests of honour: Greater London Assembly member for City and East London Councillor Unmesh Desai and Fred Jarvis as well as a number of governors, friends, partners, colleagues and NewVIc alumni.

We were particularly pleased that so many Newham councillors were able to join us for the occasion. It was 25 years ago that the London Borough of Newham made the bold and wise decision to establish a sixth form college in order to increase the participation, achievement and progression of 16-18 year olds in the area which were far too low at the time. The college was an immediate success; enrolling more students and achieving better results and progression than expected and it has grown and thrived ever since. The council’s decision to create the college was absolutely the right one.

25 years later, the college continues to educate around 25% of all Newham’s 16-18 year olds and sends 700-800 students per year to university. Tens of thousands of our former students / alumni live and work locally – most of them graduates now and contributing to the local economy in so many ways.

At the ceremony, we were entertained by former NewVIc student and singer-songwriter Lauren Dhamu who has just launched her first album on the E3 label, who sang ‘Didn’t you know’ by Erika Badu and ‘LKD Soke Remix’ accompanied by Femi Akinyemi and John Crockford. Lauren is the latest in a long line of NewVIc alumni who have made careers for themselves in the performing arts while keeping up their connection with the college and supporting other emerging artists.

NewVIc’s campus was created around the former Cumberland school which itself occupied the site of the former Plaistow secondary and Plaistow Grammar school – with some additional purpose-built buildings. The campus has grown since 1992 with new accommodation being added periodically – although most of it has been temporary.

It was wonderful to hear from our good friend Fred Jarvis; a lifelong champion of comprehensive education and the only person to have led both the National Union of Students and the National Union of Teachers and chaired the TUC. Fred attended Plaistow secondary school in the 1930’s and 40’s going back to the very earliest days of this campus. Fred has written about his time in Plaistow in his book ‘You never know your luck – reflections of a cockney campaigner for education’ Like the great actor Terence Stamp, who attended the school post-war, Fred is an honorary NewVIc alumnus.

On an occasion like this it’s slightly embarrassing to recall that for a number of years, we had actually planned to move the college to Stratford – based on the Olympic effect and allegedly better ‘travel to learn’. Looking back, we are delighted that instead we decided to build on our past and develop our current campus. The centre of London is certainly moving East but it looks like E13 is going to share the benefits as much as E15 or E20.

We developed a campus Masterplan which mapped out the complete renewal of our accommodation at Prince Regent Lane over a number of independent phases.  What did we want most urgently for Phase 1? Our priorities were: a new entrance with a new relationship with the street, more open and transparent social spaces, a new theatre and a much larger university-style library.

We want to thank our visionary architect: Charles Dokk Olsen from Shepheard Epstein Hunter (SEH), our project manager Grant Charman from CPB and our builders InterServe Construction for creating a beautiful, generous, light and functional space for young people to learn, socialise and circulate. They all worked closely with us throughout the design and construction process and many of the ideas have come through the involvement of staff and students. This building is already a source of real pride for the whole college community.

There’s more about the design and the process here.

It’s worth saying that we have paid for this building entirely ourselves; with no capital grants or donations from anyone else. Our reserves and borrowings are clearly public money and this shows what can be done by judicious and visionary public investment in public services. We hope that the government will come around to the view that investing in education infrastructure is important otherwise it will be some time before we see a Phase 2 built on this campus.

A new school or college building is an expression of confidence in the future and in young people in particular. We’ve seen a lot spent on regeneration in Newham and our borough has been transformed in many positive ways. The regeneration we’ve started here is a long-term investment in the transformation of a whole community; showing confidence in everyone’s potential and contribution.

What we’re doing is investing in learning, culture and exchange:

A library is a place of cultural preservation and transmission, of delight and discovery. It needs to be rich in information and communication technology but also full of books which can open so many windows and doors to us. Since we opened our new library we’ve already seen a doubling of the number of daily visits – a real measure of its success.

A theatre is a place of cultural exchange and creation, of critical dialogue and debate as well as of sociability, celebration and escape. It’s a place to assemble to reflect together on life; it’s joys and challenges.

This is what we’ve invested in.

We live in difficult times and young people face many challenges and uncertainties. One of our slogans is: “New thinking for a new future”. If we’re going to solve the problems we face as a society we will need new ways of thinking and new ways of doing. Education is about transmission and renewal but it’s also about transformation and developing that new thinking which is so essential. Even at the worst of times, that means doing the best of things – taking responsibility for each other and for the next generation.

So, our promise to our community is to continue trying to do the best of things based on the values we have always championed. NewVIc will continue to be an inclusive and comprehensive place of ambition and success, committed to renewing and building our community.

Based on my speech for the opening of our new building: 30th June 2017

The delicious snacks were provided by Roberta and her team from Mazi Mas, run by women from refugee and migrant backgrounds. Our guests were able to view an exhibition of beautiful photos taken by students of the site and some of the workers who helped build it. They were also able to see some of the amazing work on display in our annual Art show.

See also:

Design for learning (May 2017)

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More area reviews?

More area reviews of post-16 education? We’ve only just got through the last lot and that took up loads of everyone’s time for very little benefit. Surely this can’t be a serious suggestion…

Well, it might not be guaranteed to lift our spirits, and some wariness, or weariness, would be understandable. But yes, we could really do with more area reviews – albeit of a different type. The recent Area Reviews only looked at colleges, and left out the providers which account for the education of around 40% of all 16-18 year olds. Sixth form provision based in schools was not in scope in these reviews and the quality and efficiency of their work as well as their impact and contribution to local patterns of provision was simply not considered at all.

This was a major design flaw and one which was repeatedly pointed throughout the process. In many areas the key problem is the proliferation of new 16-18 capacity with no regard to evidence of actual local supply or demand. Stories abound across England of new sixth forms being allowed to open just down the road from existing good or outstanding providers with capacity. School and college sixth forms seem to plan in separate worlds while on the ground operating very much in the same world where there are only so many learners to go around. The result of this lack of planning is often a diminished and impoverished offer to young people while also being a pretty poor use of resources at a time when resources are scarce.

Since last year the official minimum threshold for a viable new sixth form is not less than 200 students and 15 A level subjects according to Department for Education guidance. However, over 1,000 school sixth form are well below this threshold and the pace of new proposals has hardly reduced with planned new sixth forms slipping through before the new guidance has time to bed down.

So this is where we are and we need to create a new type of area review to address this problem. David Hughes, the Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, told the Commons Education Select Committee in December that such reviews are essential: “It doesn’t have to happen in the same way for the same timetable, because there are 2,000-odd sixth forms, so it’s a big number. But we have to do it. Because young people are not getting the deal they need.” FE Commissioner Richard Atkins also seems to agree that there is a “case to answer” over small school sixth forms of low quality offering a limited range of qualifications.

What might such reviews look like and how might they work? I suggest that they should:

  • Involve the providers themselves (most if not all) and include student, staff and locally elected representatives.
  • Require a minimum of additional work and be based on an analysis of existing data.
  • Be short and focused and lead to agreed partnership solutions which have a real prospect of releasing resources and improving provision across an area.

The 4 key themes they should address can be summarized by the acronym S.Q.E.P:

Sufficiency: Is the full range of options which young people want and need available to them within a reasonable travelling distance? Is there enough capacity overall and can the system cope with any demographic change (whether up or down)? Are young people being offered sufficient breadth and challenge across the area?

Quality: Is the current quality of the offer good enough? Where are the best outcomes and how could the best practice be shared and spread?

Efficiency: Is the current offer cost-effective and sustainable or are there courses which are threatened despite there being sufficient aggregate demand for them across the area? Could resources tied up in inefficient provision be released to benefit young people across the system?

Partnership: What is the potential for collaboration to reduce inefficiencies while respecting student choices and institutional autonomy? How will the partners work together to implement the recommendations? The possibilities include: common information, advice and guidance, common application systems, common academic enhancement, shared provision of minority, specialist or threatened subjects and collective partnerships with employers and universities – none of which need to threaten institutional independence.

The reviews could follow a fairly standard pattern, informed by a standard data-set generating a standard report – the approach could be established by the first areas to volunteer and be adopted and adapted from then on.

Who will initiate such reviews? We cannot wait for the government or commissioners to propose something – welcome as that would be. Such reviews could start now in those areas where there is already a willingness to work together to build a better system. The evidence of being able to realise a ‘partnership premium’ (resources released by working together) should act as an incentive for other areas to follow suit and the process will catch on if it’s successful.

If we can’t bring ourselves to try this approach we will be missing a great opportunity to make sure that all the talent and resource we have between us in our sixth forms can be fully mobilised in the interests of all the young people we are here to serve.

See also:

London’s sixth forms (June 2016)

The challenge of small sixth forms (April 2016)

16-19 Education: from independence to dependence (April 2016)

A sixth form profile of the ‘Local London’ area (February 2016)

A level languages in London (February 2016)

A level minority report: Dance, Music, Philosophy (February 2016)

A level Drama in London (March 2016)

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Equality at the heart of our values

The more we discuss and explore ‘British Values’ with our students, the clearer it becomes: equality needs to be at the heart of our value system. We cannot teach these values without placing the idea of equality at their core and reflecting on what it means for the way we live our lives and make decisions.

Let’s take them one by one:


The idea of democracy is based on citizens having an equal say in decisions which affect them. In a democratic state, the freely expressed wishes of each citizen, regardless of who they are, should carry equal weight. As we explore this concept more deeply with students we can discuss how well different democratic systems translate people’s wishes and aspirations into public policy and allow everyone’s voice to be heard. In an unequal society, the notion that each person’s voice should be of equal worth and carry equal weight is still a radical and precious idea.

The rule of law

The idea that we need rules in order to maintain a functioning society and protect people is generally well understood. Students also need to appreciate that in a democracy, the right to question and criticise particular laws is a legitimate and vital right. They should also recognise that laws can change over time and that different territories have agreed different laws. They key is that we should all be equal before the law. In any particular jurisdiction, the law should apply equally to everyone and the right to representation, the burden of proof and the application of the law should be blind to people’s position in society.

Individual liberty

The freedom to live our lives, to identify and express ourselves as we wish without unnecessary coercion, discrimination or oppression as long as we are not doing so at the expense of the fundamental freedoms of others also needs to be seen through the lens of equality. These individual and collective freedoms are only meaningful if they apply equally to us all. A society where some groups or individuals enjoy rights which others are denied cannot claim to value those freedoms.

Respect and tolerance

The idea of respecting others is also profoundly egalitarian. It means putting into daily practice the belief that others are entitled to the same respect from us which we hope to receive for ourselves. If we only show respect for those we like or agree with, or those we have more in common with, we would be denying the fundamental equality of human beings.

Young people are growing up in a society where they have plenty of lived experience of inequality. In our educational settings, we should aim to create experiences of equality while also acknowledging the shortcomings of the world we live in and encouraging critical engagement. The way we teach citizenship and British values should emphasize their egalitarian core even if their practical application in the world can sometimes be found wanting.

See also:

Crick reloaded: citizenship education and British values (September 2016)

Post-16 citizenship in tough times (May 2014)

Unashamedly egalitarian (February 2014)



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Education 2022: market or system?

What will education in England look like in 2022? An election is the decisive moment where we are offered, and can select from, alternative futures. Following an inconclusive general election outcome which has delivered a hung parliament, we now await the programme of our next government. Here are the outlines of two very different possible futures: do either of them overlap with our own hopes?

1. A market:

Following the 2017 election, the political majority at Westminster remained broadly committed to our current direction of travel. Continuing public austerity meant less public spending on education and the new national funding formula for schools redistributed the diminishing resource with catastrophic consequences for many areas of the country. After Brexit, the standards rhetoric became even more strident around Britain needing to become ever more globally competitive and ‘win the race to the top’ both economically and educationally in the PISA tables. Politicians’ response to Britain’s greater economic isolation became even more uncompromising about demanding personal responsibility for high standards and ‘no excuses’ from individual students, teachers, schools and colleges if they achieve anything less than average in various national measures.

The language of the education market became the norm and by 2022 the landscape is dominated by a small number of competing national chains, now known as companies, with national contracts. These are the ‘big six’, each of which operates across all regions and in primary, secondary and post-16. Each company has a strong brand identity and has the capacity to innovate at company level, it supports its own teacher training and development and its own research capacity. Many of them also produce teaching and assessment materials commercially and offer a range of paid-for services to students and parents. They have massive budgets and are not subject to any local scrutiny or accountability and most are quoted on the stock exchange. They maintain close relationships with the national commissioners and politicians who sign off their contracts, regulate their activities and decide the performance measures they will be judged by. They are generally regarded as ‘too big to fail’.

The various national companies offer a range of unique selling points and distinctive strengths to their customers. Some of the chains are a little more focused on ‘character’ and other on elitism and specialisation, some emphasise sports or the arts a bit more while others have a slightly more technological bias. These ‘flavours’ are often linked to particular commercial partnerships.

In order to stimulate competition, the government has encouraged the trend towards greater selection and stratification of schools to permit companies to offer ‘different types of school for different types of learner’ with a variety of selection points at different ages. So although each company aims to cater for all types of learner, their size allows them to engage in ‘cherry picking’ and segregation of students with particular aptitudes and talents at a younger and younger age. Specialist technical schools and colleges are common as are highly selective ‘super-grammars’. One company’s initiative to create a hyper-selective national residential sixth form college aiming to get every one of its students into Oxbridge soon led to the other companies following suit and selection for some of these colleges now starts at age 14.

All the companies market themselves vigorously and their slick TV commercials tell inspiring personal stories of student growth, fulfilment and success within the company system. At the local level, schools are defined in terms of their parent company rather than their school name and the company is the brand that really counts. Students generally study within a single company throughout their schooling, benefiting from continuity of staffing and ethos and this is seen as a strength. People even claim to be able to identify which company a student was schooled in based on their behaviour and attitudes.

The school and college curriculum is increasingly driven by the perceived needs of the economy, concentrating either on the ‘core’ subjects or technical tracks which, it is claimed, will help students find their place in the workforce and beat the global competition.

As public funding has continued to fall, companies are allowed to charge for more and more of the ‘extras’, including company-franchised mentoring and tutoring, sports, music, arts and outward-bound activities. A loan system operates which provides funds for the least well-off students – with the debt added to any subsequent higher education fee debt.

University fees have been uncapped and there is real competition on price. School companies have negotiated bulk deals with university groups offering preferential loans and bursaries to high achieving students. Adult education is purely about investing in one’s marketable skills and people have to borrow to pay a private provider for it, or persuade their employer to pay.

The national companies’ dominance of the market has led to some spectacular scandals and market failures, the solution to which is always seen as better regulation or changes in company management. Public campaigns on education are generally focused on specific company difficulties rather than offering any coherent critique of the system. When a complete reform of the system is proposed it is derided as ‘unrealistic’. Education debates or industrial disputes tend to be about the ineffectiveness or monopolistic excesses of a particular national company or the difficulties faced by innovative new start-up companies.

Many parents and students are satisfied customers of the company they have chosen, they buy into its ethos and feel loyalty to it. This education market is diverse and seems to offer something for everyone, although the ‘top’ companies seem to find ways to move low-performing students out of their provision. Nationally, the achievement gap is widening but somehow this is glossed over as the spectacular results of the highest performing students are highlighted.

As the 2022 election campaign approaches, one of the major parties is advocating a personalised ‘national lifelong learning fund’ which the state will guarantee to the national companies to fund their students’ education from 14 onwards to be repaid by the individuals to their company once they get a job and demonstrate sufficient personal character, grit and resilience. By 2022, the politics of education has become consumer politics and there is very little advocacy of a democratically accountable public education, let alone the neighbourhood comprehensive school.

2. A system:

Following the first 2017 election, a consensus began to emerge at Westminster that education was not benefiting from the unfettered market. During the campaign for the second 2017 election, politicians of all parties were struck by the level of popular dissatisfaction with the incoherence and chaos people were experiencing and impressed by the desire for change as part of a growing wider public support for universal public services. Continuing with the reforms of the previous 5 years was clearly not an option and the new majority in parliament supported the broad notion of a National Education Service.

The politicians agreed that the key principles for such a service might perhaps be found in the imagination and daily practice of the people actually concerned with education rather than in the corridors of Westminster or Whitehall. So within a few weeks of the election they launched a national Great Debate about the purpose and organisation of education in England. This willingness to listen to people turned out to be their best decision.

The Great Debate aimed to involve everyone in discussing a few simple questions:

  • What do we want from education?
  • What is an educated person?
  • How do we ensure that everyone gets the best possible education?

The initial Great Debate was given a month in order to focus everyone’s minds and instil a sense of urgency. It was conducted on-line, using social media, in public meetings large and small, inside and outside school classrooms and in outreach activity to ensure that everyone, including children and young people, had the opportunity to express their views. Public involvement in the process was very high, different opinions were respected and the views of ‘experts’ and education professionals were given equal weight to those of everyone else.

As the Great Debate got going, people got excited. They were being listened to and they were setting the agenda. Having voted for genuinely public education system, they were now being asked how to shape it. The discussions generated many brilliant ideas and the deliberation and aggregation process throughout the month meant that the most popular themes started to emerge and people could return to the debate at different stages.

It became clear quite early on that there was a real consensus that a common national education system for England needed ambitious social, economic and personal objectives which could address the needs of all its people.

One of the most popular emerging themes was “education needs to be like the NHS” and that was actually one of the key outcomes: a groundswell of support for a comprehensive national education system based on agreed common aims, cooperation and universalism rather than competition and selection.

Another outcome was a real celebration of the work of teachers and pride in the work of students. Many participants said that learning directly about what happens in our schools, colleges and universities had surprised and impressed them and inspired them to get more involved themselves.

Following this Great Debate, the school curriculum was redefined in terms of human flourishing as well as the fundamental knowledge and skills that everyone needs to build on to be a successful contributor to society. There was support for both breadth and specialisation at upper secondary level with no options being closed off at any age.

Once the national aims were agreed, the new system needed to be built from the existing one with collaboration around the nationally agreed shared aims, core entitlements and funding as givens. The English regions were given the right to elect education councils to oversee the development of the system in their region using all the educational resources available. These elections gave the new councils a strong mandate to develop a distinctive approach for their area within the national aims. The limited funding available was equalised across the phases and boosted by releasing the ‘partnership premium’, spending previously tied up in competition and duplication. There was room for specialisation as well as regional and local innovation and some regions are now leading on different themes and sharing their work nationally and they have created new forums for action research, evaluation, curriculum and professional development.

The talents and skills of the nation’s young people were increasingly recognised and celebrated including their contribution to community and cultural life and the impact of their research. These were valued within the school leavers’ National Baccalaureate.

By 2022, we are also starting to see a renaissance of adult education in various forms as universities work with other parts of the education service to reach out more and respond to the needs and interests of all adults in their region. Reading groups, current affairs groups, cultural activity, community organising and volunteering feed into university extramural programmes with a consequential strengthening of both local and virtual community solidarity.

In fact, the Great Debate which started in late 2017 never really stopped. People found that they wanted to contribute to education and to help shape the new system. This momentum was built on through local education forums across the country which informed the work of the new education councils and helped hold them to account between elections. People’s attachment to their education service and the idea of public service generally was strengthened by this activity.

Educational inequality has not been abolished in 2022 but there is evidence that the gaps are narrowing. Not everyone in 2022 is satisfied with the rate of progress and funding remains tight. People are proud of the ‘new’ system, positive about its contribution to society and optimistic about its future. There does seem to be a consensus around the aims and values established through the Great Debate.

By the time of the 2022 election, all the major parties are committed to the system and the policy differences are mostly about resource allocation and curriculum priorities. One of the parties is advocating another Great Debate about a universal Basic Income.

There is choice and diversity within this comprehensive system and we hear very little advocacy of greater competition or market incentives. There is friendly rivalry between different parts of the service as they strive to offer the best to their communities but this is combined with a commitment to sharing what they do best to help the whole service improve.

In conclusion: making our path

These are just two of many possible futures for education: one shaped by the market or one organised around people’s needs. We need to decide which vision of the future most appeals to us and use democratic means to achieve it.

In one of his poems, the Spanish poet Antonio Machado says: “there is no path, the path is made by walking.” Ultimately, it will be up to us to decide which direction we want to walk in.

Adapted from ‘Education 2020: market or system?’ a talk given at the Society for Educational Studies annual seminar, Cambridge in February 2015 and ‘Market madness: condition critical’ (in Forum vol.57, no.2, June 2015)

See also:

Market madness: condition critical

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Sixth form student research continues to grow

The steady rise in Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) entries in England’s sixth forms suggests that student research is increasingly valued. However, less than 6% of all advanced sixth form completers have the opportunity to achieve it and many are studying in sixth forms where it isn’t available.

The 37,892 EPQ entries in 2016 represent a 4% increase over the previous year and this continues the upward trend of the past 7 years. Nationally, 63% of EPQ entries come from over 1,300 school sixth forms, 26% of entries come from 182 colleges (with 78 sixth form colleges accounting for the great majority: 21% of the total) and 352 private fee-charging schools account for around 11% of entries. This still means that 44% of all sixth forms do not offer the EPQ at all.

The average number of EPQ entries per sixth form college is 101 – well above the average for any other provider type (17 for state funded schools and 12 for private schools). 15 of the top 20 centres by size are sixth form colleges and for the third year running the list is headed by Hills Road Sixth Form College with 1,043 EPQ entries. 2nd is Esher with 421 entries, 3rd is Barton Peveril with 349, 4th is Bilborough with 347 and 5th is Peter Symonds with 287.

The pass rates for EPQs are generally high with a national average of 91%. Once again the most successful provider type is sixth form colleges with an average pass rate of 95%.

The EPQ is not the only way to accredit student research but it does offer UCAS points and is valued by universities as a sign of students’ academic curiosity as well as their research and presentation skills. A good EPQ allows a young person to investigate a question which interests them critically, analytically and in some depth. Their topic might be a deeper exploration of a theme being studied in one of their subjects, it may arise from the interaction of their subjects or the spaces between them, or it may be something entirely personal and unrelated. At its best, it can be an original contribution which involves some primary research and offers a genuinely new insight. The EPQ is an opportunity for students to produce their version of an apprentice’s ‘masterpiece’ which demonstrates their commitment and their promise and makes a tangible contribution to their community. It should be something they can proudly present to a wide audience and which provokes discussion and reflection.

At a time of continuing squeeze on public funding for sixth form education which makes a 4 A level programme unaffordable for most, an EPQ can be a good way to broaden students’ programmes and build on their wider academic interests. However, it attracts no additional funding for a 3 A level students and many providers will feel they cannot afford any additionality.

At its best, the product of student research projects provides evidence of mastery and skill which can hold its own in the wider world and this could form part of everyone’s sixth form graduation or matriculation. For today’s visual or performing arts students, this evidence could be similar to their current portfolios, artefacts or student devised productions. For students of other disciplines, it might be a student-led community project, social enterprise, publication or the more traditional written essay. Digital platforms offer a great opportunity to share and discuss these products widely and sixth form teachers, university academics, professionals, employers and local residents could all play a part in supporting, assessing and celebrating student research. Universities could extend and deepen their support for developing a research culture – particularly where EPQ entries are low or non-existent. Regional partnerships could provide training and resources for sixth form staff and students across a wide area.

The London picture

Looking at London in more detail, it is evident that despite growth overall, the availability of EPQ provision is patchy and becoming even more polarised, with most London borough entering below the London average proportion of the cohort (see table below). On average, only 5.5% of the eligible second year cohort across London is entered for an EPQ although this percentage varies widely from borough to borough with some of the ‘lowest’ boroughs experiencing a 3-year decline against the overall upwards trend.

2016 EPQ entries by London borough

No. of entries / proportion of eligible cohort / 3 year trend (2014-2016)

London borough 2016 % cohort Trend
Sutton 346 11.2 Down
Southwark 151 10.3 Up
Ealing 216 8.7 =
Lambeth 165 7.4 Up
City of London 15 7.1 Up
Wandsworth 258 6.8 Up
Kingston 185 6.4 Up
Hammersmith & Fulham 225 6.3 Up
Greenwich 135 6.1 Up
Richmond 150 5.9 Up
Croydon 276 5.4 Down
Bromley 255 5.2 Down
Merton 53 5.1 Up
Tower Hamlets 142 5.0 Up
Bexley 84 4.9 Up
Brent 123 4.5 Up
Hillingdon 202 4.3 Up
Lewisham 149 3.8 Down
Barnet 200 3.7 Up
Barking 135 3.7 Up
Westminster 121 3.7 Up
Enfield 93 3.5 Down
Waltham Forest 133 3.3 Down
Harrow 167 3.2 Down
Camden 105 3.1 Down
Redbridge 105 2.7 Up
Islington 18 2.7 Down
Kensington & Chelsea 56 2.4 Down
Havering 82 2.3 Down
Hounslow 72 2.2 Up
Haringey 63 2.2 Down
Newham 71 2.1 Up
Hackney 38 2.1 Down
London total 4,589 5.5 Up

Data drawn from the underlying data in the 2016 performance tables.

[Health warning: Borough data is for the borough providers are based in, not the borough students live in – this will have a distorting effect where a borough is served by a large provider whose main campus is actually in a neighbouring borough – this is quite common in London]

A few suggestions:

  • The possibilities and the benefits of expanding student research are evident but there aren’t enough incentives for more sixth forms to promote this important work: the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) should consider incentivising the EPQ in the same way that high achieving students on larger programmes attract more funding with a longer term aim of including research skills as part of national programmes of study.
  • Providers themselves should aim to increase EPQ take up overall: A target of at least 5% moving towards 10% of the cohort in every sixth form would be a perfectly achievable goal.
  • EPQ delivery lends itself to an area partnership approach and universities and employers are well placed to support this as it is very much in their interest to develop young people’s independent research skills. Local networks covering each area could be tasked with promoting and supporting EPQ provision across their patch.
  • EPQ entries shouldn’t only be targeted at A-level students who have already demonstrated good research skills and initiative: we should aim for a more inclusive and ambitious approach where the EPQ is seen as a way of developing those skills in all students including those for whom this is a steeper learning curve. The high cohort participation in some colleges are partly a reflection of the very high prior achievement of their students as well as of a strong research culture (eg: Hills Road in Cambridge at 96% of the cohort), but some more comprehensive providers also manage participation well above average (eg: Regent College in Leicester at 20% of the cohort).
  • Promoting and expanding the use of the Foundation (level 1) and Higher (GCSE level) Project Qualifications in schools and colleges would help to build skills and confidence and put in place the stepping stones many students need to help them work their way up to a fully fledged EPQ. Sixth form providers could offer to help Year 11 students achieve a Higher Project (GCSE level standard) in order to develop their research skills and prepare for progression. [I couldn’t find any data on HPQ entries in the Key Stage 4 Performance Table data – I’d be grateful if anyone can point to where this can be found]

See also:

More sixth formers doing research projects (February 2016)

Promoting a sixth form student research culture (September 2014)

EPQ chief examiner John Taylor wrote an excellent piece in the TES with 8 top success tips for teachers, 4 of which are here

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Brecht’s radical Galileo

Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’ is a great piece of theatre with universal appeal. It’s also a particularly good one for science students because it brings the scientific method to life. Galileo’s struggle to get acceptance for the ‘Copernican’ heliocentric model of the solar system took place nearly 400 years ago and even though the Catholic church has admitted it was wrong to force him to recant in 1633, it took them quite some time to come round to this view – officially not till 1992.

Now that even his most implacable opponents have accepted his evidence, what can this historical episode still have to say to us, in the age of space travel, satellites and quantum mechanics? Brecht uses the story to remind us of the subversive power of reason. In the 17th century, as now, rational evidence is capable of calling into question long-held assumptions and the existing order. Simply by asking the right questions and relying on observation, we are capable of overturning established dogma.

Brecht’s Galileo is far from being a high-minded theorist. He has plenty of human frailty as well as a being a cussed rationalist who believes in methodical observation, questioning and putting his own theories under the most rigorous scrutiny. He teaches us the central importance of theory building, doubt and falsificationism:

We’ll question everything, everything, all over again. And we won’t run at it in great big boots, we’ll go at a snail’s pace. And what we find today, we’ll strike from the record tomorrow. And only when we find it once more will we write it in. And when we find something we want to find, we’ll look at it with fierce suspicion. (Scene 9)

And later:

As I see it, to be a scientist needs particular courage. Science is knowledge won through doubt. (Scene 14)

In his very first speech, in Scene 1, Galileo describes the movement and turbulence he sees in a world where the existing order appears so settled and unchanging:

The Pope, cardinals, princes, captains, merchants, fishwives and schoolboys thought they were stuck dead still at the centre of that crystal ball. But now we’re flying headlong into outer space.

Where belief sat, now sits doubt. The whole world says – that’s what the old books say. Now let’s look for ourselves. The most solemn truth gets tapped on the shoulder. All that was never doubted, we doubt.

Overnight the universe lost its centre and this morning they are countless. Each and none at all is the centre.

Brecht’s Galileo is quick to see the revolutionary social implications of such questioning of authority.

…a wind of questions lifts the gold embroidered robes of princes and prelates to show – just fat or thin legs, legs like our legs..…Suddenly there’s a lot of room! (Scene 1)

And later, in Scene 14:

By giving knowledge of everything to everyone, it breeds sceptics…Our new age of doubt delights the people. They tore the telescope from our hands and pointed it at their tormentors.

Galileo confronts, persuades and cajoles his detractors – most of whom are the powerful beneficiaries of the established order: cardinals and aristocrats. But it is in the moving speech of the ‘little monk’ that he has to address the fears the common people might have about turning the existing order upside down. The monk comes from a family of poor peasants from the Campagna. He is already turning to science and is conflicted about the impact the new ideas might have:

When I observe the phases of Venus I see my family…I see the roof beams above them, black with the smoke of centuries…in their hardship there is a kind of order…Whatever the disasters, life is regular…From what do they summon the strength to drag their baskets up the stony path?…From the continuity, the sense of necessity given to them by the sight of the soil…by listening to Bible texts…they are told that the whole theatre of the universe is built around them, so that they…can play their parts well…

What would my family say if I told them that they are really on a small lump of stone, spinning endlessly in empty space around an…insignificant star, one among many?  There is no part to play…no meaning in our misery…

Galileo responds:

Why is nothing left?… You’re right, it’s not about the planets, it’s about the peasants of the Campagna. ..Virtues don’t depend on misery my friend. If your family were well off and happy, they’d have all the virtues being well of and happy beings…The victory of reason can only be the victory of reasonable people…I see the divine patience of your people, but where is their divine anger? (Scene 8)

Towards the end of his life, Galileo reflects on the moral duty of a newly empowered scientific establishment. In a speech in Scene 14, added by Brecht after the Manhattan project and the use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he has Galileo say:

If only scientists had a Hippocratic oath, like the doctors, vowing to use their knowledge only for the welfare of mankind! But now, all we have is a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for anything.

Joe Wright’s brilliant new production of ‘Life of Galileo’ at the Young Vic, starring Brendan Cowell as the irrepressible lead, brings out the play’s humanity as well as communicating all the key ideas. The staging in the round creates a constant sense of movement and places the action in both the centre and the periphery of the theatre. The play’s egalitarian message is reinforced by the mingling of cast and audience. The spectacular projections onto a planetarium dome help to illustrate the scientific observations; the sun as a broiling furnace, the moon with its mountain peaks casting their shadows and the 2-dimensional view of the movements of Jupiter’s moons revealed as circular orbits when seen in 3 dimensions. Limiting the period-specific details reveals the play’s timeless case for human rationalism and restless curiosity.

For the science students who were seeing this for the first time, the excellent staging, casting, music and ensemble gave them a fantastic introduction to Brecht and to the story of Galileo. They left the theatre buzzing with questions and ideas – and, I hope, an even greater desire to move forever onwards.

See also:

Paradigm shift (October 2014)

Tamsin Oglesby’s ‘Future Conditional’ (October 2015)




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