Slipping through the education net

Universe Column for November 12th 2006

by David Alton

While Peers and MPs have spent hours arguing about faith schools  – putting at risk one of this country’s great success stories – scant attention has been given to the children who completely fall through the education net. It’s a classic case of pursuing the wrong quarry. Just look at the facts and you will see what I mean.

According to the Government’s own figures, 30 per cent of pupils leave education at 16 with few or no useful qualifications—ordinary young people who have simply found education difficult. Later in their lives, you may meet them as loving parents, excellent mechanics, first-rate shop assistants, skilful lorry drivers and a host of other careers that are vital to the economic and social life of our nation. Lest too rosy a picture of this group should lull us into complacency, consider that some 80 per cent of the prison population are from this group and some become the disaffected youth that so many towns-people fear on their streets at night.

I recently told Parliament the stories of some of the children I have in mind: the names have been changed, but the  stories were told to me by practising teachers and are real.

Janie worked hard every lesson, often got the work right in class, but who always did badly in tests and exams, however hard she worked;  Bethany,  would often complete the work the teacher had set, but most of her answers were wrong. Both have now left school and are trainees in hair and beauty salons. Or Jamie, who arrives in lessons so eager to get his hands on things that he often gets into trouble for taking the teachers materials; or  Joe, who is expected by his GCSE entitlement to work out the percentage efficiency of a light bulb. He has struggled with ratio and never grasped percentages despite hard work by himself and his teachers and the word “efficiency” means nothing to him. And Ben hated school so much that he would work only under threat of punishment, but is now successfully engaged on an engineering apprenticeship. Those are just a few voices from around 200,000 young people who, in one year group, had academic abilities lying between the 5th and 30th percentiles.

For many in this group, the current system tells them only what they cannot do. Grades E, F and G at GCSE are of no value as entry to courses, and employers consider them to be “fail” grades. Around 55 per cent of pupils achieve five A to C grades, but that means that 45 per cent do not.

The Department for Education and Skills and the Curriculum Authority are now proposing to draw up some more appropriate new courses. But they were also responsible for the previous curriculum, which sadly has humiliated many of these less able young people, turned them off education and, in some cases, turned them against society.

Our gifted civil servants never were in the bottom set at school. They have probably never been in regular personal contact with the people whose plight I have mentioned.

Teachers tell me that you have to teach these youngsters regularly for some time before you understand that they are not simply misbehaving. They tell me that, for some students, however many times you teach some topics, however helpful the worksheet and however interesting the presentation, some pupils continually report, “I’ve no idea what you are talking about, sir”.

Classroom experience and research evidence shows that the range of abilities in the average classroom is far wider than is reflected in current GCSE courses.

Taking an average form-group of 30 pupils just starting their GCSE , from the point of view of ability the average form  contains three 8 year-olds, five 11 year-olds, 11 14 year-olds—the age of most year 10s—but also eight 16 year-olds and three pupils with the same thinking skills as good university students. That is a remarkably high range. We would find it strange if we were to have 11 year-olds and 16 year-olds in the same class, but, in terms of academic age, that is the pattern at age 14 in every non-selective school in the country. The idea that we should be offering all pupils variations on the same course, as at present, is simply nonsense.

Surely it is time to admit these facts and offer all pupils courses that stretch their abilities and also give them the chance to succeed. After all, the word “education” is derived from Latin. Its meaning is clear: to draw out; to lead forth. For education to work, it must not reinforce failure but draw on the individual aptitudes. Let them succeed and not see themselves as failures.