I once attended an interview at a private school where they were insistent that the preferred candidate should have the skills to teach across the ability range. They were, they said, non-selective in their intake of students. I reckon that annual fees upwards of £30,000 can be taken as something of a selection procedure even if they were concerned that an entrance exam should not exclude those in need of a top notch education. Selection is part of the nature of schooling, it is why children sit all those tests culminating in national examinations in late adolescence. It is why parents who can afford it will spend the money to send their children to independent schools with smaller class sizes and impressive facilities. If our children’s economic worth is to be measured by their exam results then it is thought to be an investment well worth making. If the famous public school ethos of service, duty and resilience were all that it produced it would not make a sound investment.
Education has always had the function of selection, identifying a top, middle and bottom, as it were, of yearly cohorts of children based on externally verified tests sat at 16 and 18. To some extent teachers have always been judged according to the academic progress of their classes but the intensity of this process has been hiked up under successive governments. Teachers are now at the forefront of two agendas: 1) the search for a workforce that is skilled at the right levels for the global competitiveness of British firms (though there is debate about what the right level is); 2) the use of education to tackle widening inequality of opportunity (though not tackling inequality itself).
So what is the right level of skills for the workforce? Jurgen Maier, CEO of Siemens, speaking earlier this year to the Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference said that what was required was a return to a selective system of education. Indeed selection into academic and vocational pathways is commonplace in European countries. However, in Britain the debate around grammar schools is haunted by the historic links to Cyril Burt and the like in the 1920s and 30s who wanted selection (and Burt made up the results of a survey of IQ to fit his case) in order to concentrate education spending on those who were deemed capable of being educated, the rest being dismissed (on the basis of a test at age 11) as incapable of academic learning. In countries such as Germany, however, there is more parity for vocational study with academic routes. From the point of view of the capitalist class this makes sense. Those not selected for academic routes still need to be trained and skilled to enter the modern workforce. Cyril Burt’s approach of rejecting a mass of children as incapable of learning may have suited the circumstances of the Tory-leaning capitalist class in the inter-war years when simple manual labour was still a large part of employment (why educate those who won’t need it?) does not fulfil the needs of today’s employment market.
Although grammar schools are still the darling of the class-prejudiced well-off (and therefore have a voice in the Tory party) they do not fit the bill for the Department for Education, the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan insisted recently that England would not return to a grammar school system, that she did not want to “fight the battles of the past”. Education as a process of selection, though, is what is required because that is what employers require, an efficient process of training the future workforce to the required levels, no more, no less. Mr Maier therefore said he would welcome a return to a grammar system, as long as vocational paths were equally valued.
As for 2) the problem is how do you increase equality of opportunity in a situation of widening actual inequality? Now the problem for teachers is that without selection into academic and vocational routes they are expected to stretch all pupils equally regardless of propensity in an increasingly packed and prescribed curriculum. Hence the government’s focus (through Ofsted) on ensuring that all pupils make progress and the desire to measure this by increasing the amount of testing. Hence Nicky Morgan’s recent announcement that ‘To be really confident that students are progressing well through primary school, we will be looking at the assessment of pupils at age seven to make sure it is as robust and rigorous as it needs to be’.
Hence also the government’s focus on exam standards: ‘Rather than giving children from poor families access to great education, they instead created a new cadre of pseudo qualifications, which claimed to be equivalent to academic qualifications,’ Morgan recently said. ‘Teenagers got more certificates, and school results seemed to improve. But the qualifications weren’t credible in the jobs market – they weren’t real.’ This hits at a critical function of the education system– to stratify according to ‘ability’. In Britain vocational qualifications have always been regarded as for the ‘less able’ and therefore of limited worth – sections of British industry want to tackle this to open up training non-academic routes but meeting a credible standard. The immediate objective of the government is to crank up the pressure on schools and teachers by imposing harder exams and holding schools to account for student’s results (and school’s holding individual teachers to account). Hence the recent headlines about ‘super-teachers’ with Morgan announcing plans for a national teaching service with teachers seconded to work in struggling schools. The idealism and sense of vocation which drives many to train to teach is left behind very quickly - the data-driven world of modern schools is an unpleasant place to be for the high-minded. Which is why so many teachers are leaving the profession, both newly trained and experienced. As always in a capitalist society is that when you want more out of the same resources employers squeeze more out the labour force, increasing the intensity of work. Hence the interest of the government in trying to measure the output of schools and teachers through nationalised testing, data-focussed inspections and pay-progression based on student progress data. Those interested in teaching and learning need to firstly unite in one union to fight such attacks on pay and conditions of work but also beyond capitalism, to the separation of learning from the needs of profit.