Wednesday, 26 August 2009


Tomorrow is GCSE Results Day and Ed Balls plans to mark this occasion with a 'scathing attack' on the Conservative plans for education under the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove.

The Labour Schools Secretary will attack the Tories plans to create a two-tier system, in which academic qualifications are held in much greater esteem than vocational qualifications - this will effectively force schools to push unsuitable students into academic disciplines in order to keep up in the insane league tables game.

Before looking at the Tory proposals which Balls is attacking, let's make sure we're not making a good guy/ bad guy scenario. The last 12 years of educational policy under Labour have hardly been in the spirit of equality and cohesion. Labour have encouraged private businesses and dubious entrepreneurs to buy failing schools and do as they want with them. Under Labour, the gap between rich and poor has expanded, with obvious repurcussions on education. Although I'm tending towards agreement with what Balls will say tomorrow, it's more out of opposition to the Tories than out of loyalty to NuLab's education ideas.

Balls proposes that Gove's policies will expand and entrench the 'academic'/vocational divide. The fundamental problem with exacerbating this divide is that it inevitably dichotomises into good/bad. Achievements in mathematics, sciences and languages are held in particularly high esteem by the Tories - it may not only be vocational education that is put at risk, but also those A Levels that are often derided - Media Studies, Psychology, Sociology. These A Levels have a higher take-up rate in comprehsive schools, and I see it as no coincidence that it is these subjects that are looked down upon by the Conservatives. In the case of Sociology and Media Studies, maybe the dislike is something to do with the fact that these two subjects open students eyes to the workings of our modern society and our modern political sphere. Sociology equips students with a working knowledge of inequality, so it is no surprise that Gove and co favour 'hard' subjects. Physics won't expose the flaws in their policies.

Gove's recent statement of intention to 'overhaul' the league tables by according different weighting to 'harder' subjects is laying the groundworks for further divisions to be introduced. A better overhaul of league tables would be to scrap them.

What is blazingly apparent is that the Conservatives are offering nothing new - merely their old policies repackaged, with Cameron tying a ribbon of lexical obscurity around it. The Tory's plans to split and divide academic from vocational learning flies in the face of Labour's attempts to bridge the two through the Diploma scheme. The plans also suggest a move towards a tripartite system for the 21st century. I've heard the virtues of grammar schools being expounded with increasing frequency recently. This is all well and good for those 11 year olds who pass the 11+ - less so for the 80% who failed and were effectively abandoned in the underfunded secondary moderns. Think Billy Casper.

Although Balls is by no means the flagbearer for a perfect education system, I am more concerned with the encroaching Jolly Roger of Gove and his retro-conservative band of picaroons.

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