Rarely do I get angry whilst reading an education story on the BBC website, but I did get rather cross reading ‘Pupils in some areas are not offered 'vital' GCSEs’. According to the BBC, a report from the Open Public Services Network found that “pupils in some parts of England are unlikely to take exams that could be vital to their job prospects.” For example, in 2013 “children in Kensington, London, were four times more likely to be enrolled for a language GCSE than children in Middlesbrough”, and there were similar concerns about pupils studying separate sciences.
Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, was quoted as saying that the report provided evidence of the “bleak correlation between educational opportunities and geography.” Now, I’m no sociologist and I can’t claim to have anything like Sir Peter’s experience in these matters, but it seems to me that there’s a big assumption behind the gloomy tone of his comments and indeed of the BBC coverage; that the government’s prescription for improving social mobility was right after all. As far as I can see, the ‘MorGovian’ way to get more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds into Russell Group universities is to ensure that all such pupils study ‘academic’ subjects – an EBacc compatible Key Stage 4 curriculum, for example – and that they aren’t incentivised to study ‘vocational’ subjects, as was the case under Labour.
I would have thought a better way of improving social mobility would be to ensure pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds get the best possible results from a curriculum that motivates and inspires them, whether that be ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’. The trick is to get the curriculum right for each individual. After all, success breeds success; youngsters are surely far more likely to want to keep on with this education thing if they’re doing well at it. Staying on in education (taking respected, high-value qualifications, I should add) is surely the best bet for ensuring long-term success in the labour market.
In fact, I can’t help wondering if the whole question of advantage and disadvantage is a big red herring here. Doesn’t aptitude matter more than social background? Shouldn’t we be more interested in guiding youngsters into the various curricular paths according to where their interests and prior attainment suggest they are most likely to succeed? Okay, a disproportionate number of disadvantaged pupils may have fallen behind by Year 9, but surely such students need intervention and support rather than a curriculum pathway which risks even further demotivation.
Providing tailored guidance, making every effort to raise aspirations wherever necessary, ensuring as far as possible that any past underachievement does not necessarily close down particular curricular routes, would surely improve social mobility far more that strait-jacketing students into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ academic curriculum. Providing that sort of guidance requires strong investment in Careers Education.
So I simply ask the question, is it necessarily a bad thing that youngsters in less well-heeled areas of the country take separate sciences less often? If a school provides an appropriate curriculum, appropriate aspiration-raising guidance and appropriate support for those who have fallen behind, is it wrong if some of its pupils opt away from an EBacc route? Or does even suggesting that it might not be wrong make me an “enemy of promise” too, Mr Gove?