A recent twitter spat about which of the new set of DFE Ministers are privately educated has got me thinking about whether and how far it matters where the DFE Ministers went to school. My conclusion: state or private is the wrong question.
I’m tempted to leave it there – it’s a hot day and there are other things I should be doing – but let me explain….
Wherever they were educated the new Ministers at DFE will in the main have had a similar education to one another, and also to their DFE advisors and civil servants, to journalists who comment on education issues, and to me. Chances are you will have had a similar education yourself. They’ll have done ‘O’ levels or GCSEs, followed by ‘A’ levels and then University. And they will, on the whole, have done well academically. They may not have been the highest achievers – they might even have been disappointed at their grade Bs, or to have missed out on an offer at Oxford or Cambridge – but their overwhelming experience of education is of working hard and passing academically focused exams.
When these new Ministers find themselves in a position to influence education policy it is perhaps understandable that their focus is on enabling more children to achieve what they themselves achieved: more and better GCSEs and ‘A’ levels. And they have succeeded, to an extent. Results have nudged slowly upwards: last year 59.2% of pupils achieved 5 or more GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and Maths, compared with 53.5% in 2010. Who knows, perhaps these proportions will creep up further still, although given the current and planned changes to assessment system I wouldn’t bet on it.
Given their personal experience, it must be hard for Ministers and their civil servants to put themselves in the position of the 30, 35 or 40% of pupils who remain unlikely to achieve at least five ‘good’ GCSE passes. This isn’t their experience, it isn’t their children’s experience, and it isn’t the experience of their friends or their friends’ children. And so their new policies benefit the group that they know and understand. Take, for example, today’s announcement of “extra funding to stretch the brightest state students”, by giving schools and colleges additional money where they are allowing pupils to study 4 or more A levels. Or, to give a second example, Wednesday’s release on curriculum and assessment reform, which announced new GCSEs with “more demanding courses of study”. Great news if your children are doing well academically. Less heartening if your child finds the current GCSEs tough enough.
So, my plea to the new Ministerial team, wherever they went to school, is to remember that there are bigger differences in one’s experience of education than state or private. You’re responsible now for the whole of the education system. That doesn’t just mean getting a few more pupils across the 5 GCSE threshold – it also means supporting and incentivising schools to offer credible and relevant alternatives for the large group who would benefit from a different type of educational offer.
Alison Critchley is Chief Executive of RSA Academies