As the old saying goes, there is only one thing more useful in politics than having the right friends. That’s having the right enemies.
The education secretary, Michael Gove, has been highly skilled in defining his school reforms against what he calls The Blob – an amorphous, bloated education establishment opposing him at every turn; a mass of bureaucrats, unions and academics who eschew rigour for a left-wing, child-centred, progressive agenda.
But there is another truism in politics – don’t believe your own hype. Whitehall has a habit of isolating ministers. The day-to-day grind of policy battles, firefighting and political ding-dong can start to cut you off from outside ideas and thinking. The row over Ofsted’s leadership shows the importance of retaining, and being seen to retain, independent voices near the top – not simply “yes men”. The danger is that while The Blob is a useful political tool in the short-term, it simply might not be as deep-rooted as the education secretary believes.
Yes, the main teaching unions' leaderships have played right into the government’s hands over the past four years. Their barrage of industrial action and knee-jerk opposition to any change, has allowed the Education Secretary and his supporters to characterise them as cartoon-like bogeymen. The unions’ political naivety has been astonishing.
But there is a far wider group of non-Blobberati voices across the schools sector, higher education, industry and the voluntary sector, who offer an intelligent critique of where we are now.
These people have been broadly supportive of successive governments' education reforms and, as a result, are not so easily dismissed. They believe in improving our education system but they also advocate sensible debate. They should be listened to by politicians of all parties.
A-levels do not go far enough
A good example of bringing together a range of voices was seen last week with the publication of Making Education Work. This was an independent review, strongly influenced by an advisory group, of which I was a member, consisting of senior business leaders, eminent scientists and leading academics. That’s a powerful alliance whose views deserve a hearing.
We noted that the UK’s economy and society had changed out of all recognition in the last 60 years. Yet we are still wedded to a system where sixth formers specialise in three or four gold-standard A-level subjects.
Indeed, it could be argued that this has been entrenched further by a return to “pass or fail” final exams after two years of study, alongside the introduction of more vocationally orientated Tech-Levels.
For me, it is not being Blob-like at all to ask if that is good enough in the long-term.
I’m not one to join in the national self-flagellation around England’s position in the OECD’s PISA rankings – they are one measure but not the only measure.
But it’s clear that globalised trade, communications, technology and employment means our young people now compete directly with their peers across the world. And everywhere, governments, employers and teachers are asking the same question: how do we ensure that they are highly educated, well-equipped to be good citizens and able to contribute to productive economic growth?
The benefit of long-term thinking
That’s why our review has made clear a secondary curriculum must be much more clearly linked to the UK’s economic and social strategy. And it puts forward a number of important recommendations to do this.
First, a permanent, independent strategic advisory body on curriculum, delivery and assessment. It’s time to end education policy being at the behest of five-year electoral cycles and three decades of changing policy priorities. If national infrastructure projects in areas such as energy and transport deserve long-term thinking, surely the same applies to education?
Second, widening the existing narrow choice of A-level subjects with a broader baccalaureate-style system – based on a core of English, mathematics, science and extended project work.
This won’t happen overnight. We stress it will require better specialist teaching and facilities; that it won’t be appropriate for all; and that top-class science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) degrees will still require early specialisation. But given the demands of employers and society, the case for students to study as broadly as possible is a no-brainer.
Third, a much greater emphasis on non-cognitive, so-called “softer skills” is called for. These include clear communication in English and maths, STEM and digital competence, team working, personal and interpersonal skills. Such skills will help to embed codes of conduct, ethics, emotional maturity, and initiative and entrepreneurship, creativity and cultural awareness. This does not undermine rigour – it enhances it.
New decade, same argument
It seems particularly appropriate to be considering these ideas now. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Tomlinson Report into 14-19 education.
It recommended radical reform, including phasing out GCSEs, A and AS-levels and vocational qualifications and replacing them with a new diploma. Too radical as it turned out, when the then-Labour government feared being seen as soft on standards in the run-in to the 2005 election. Tomlinson was ignored and in its place came a watered-down alternative vocational diploma – now discarded.
Yet, a decade later we’re still having the same argument. And without a mature consensus on education reform, we’ll be in the same position in a another decade’s time. I doubt the latest changes to A-levels are the answer on their own. Worse than that, the history of vocational reform suggests Tech-Levels risk being seen as second-rate, however unfairly.
Our report challenges all politicians to demonstrate long-term leadership. Forget fighting The Blob. Building consensus on the future direction of education in this country is a sign of strength, not weakness. Now who is up for the challenge?
Sir David Bell is on the advisory board for the Making Education Better review. He is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading and former Permanent Secretary of the Department for Education.