The future of the future of A level students.

Ah Gove. Mister Michael Gove. The Right Honourable Michael Gove. This is a Conservative Cabinet member who the Guardian today reckoned was one of the rising stars of the party, and this makes me shudder. 

He is a man who seems bent on reforming the state education system towards something resembling a nineteen sixties grammar school. One where university education was the reserve for the academically gifted, (but free) and where the non-academic pupils were catered for by secondary modern and secondary technical schools. Of course now nearly fifty percent of pupils go to University and it certainly isn’t free and there is no special provision for those who are not academically gifted.

Today there are a good few handful of grammar schools still in existence: flourishing and keeping local economies (and house prices) buoyant, and I had the experience of attending one for a little over two years as a youngster in Bournemouth. In the latest league tables of GCSE results ninety-nine percent of its pupils attained A*- C grades. At my local comprehensive in the town I now live in that figure is in the mid forty percents. Why? because this school does not select its pupils and has no great culture of academic aspiration. It has a nuclear facility on its doorstep that provides well-paid jobs regardless of whether you are a graduate or not and so there simply is not the emphasis to go and learn for the mere sake of it. When I went to Kenya in 1998 I visited a girls secondary school and saw a list of A level results. The girls had done well, but the only A levels on offer to them were science, maths and english. At the time I felt sad that those with a love of the arts were being funnelled into different directions, but since graduating with an arts degree and marrying a chemical engineer, I am more fully aware of the benefits of science degrees when it comes to making a living. What good is an education for its own sake if it costs you time and money and gives you little return financially?

Of course, it is wrong of me to assume that schools with good league table positions are encouraging further education for its own sake. Of course they aren’t. Not since the Russell Group of Universities declared its list of ‘facilitating subjects’ in 2011, which has since been latched onto by league table manipulators/setters/policy people. Yes now exam league tables rank schools by the percentage of pupils with two A grades and a B at A-level in facilitating subjects – which exclude subjects including Religious Studies, Music, Art, Economics, Design and Technology, Philosophy, Politics and Theatre Studies. It was always common sense that if one wanted to apply to Cambridge to study PPE, then A levels in Photography, Psychology and Media Studies probably wouldn’t cut the mustard, but to have this formalised into league-tables is going to affect more than the individual pupil and his/her future.  

Yet even some of the facilitating subjects aren’t secure under Gove’s helm. I read recently that Historians are worried that the abolition of AS levels are going to discourage students from picking the subject at sixteen, (as they will be in it for the whole two year slog) and this in turn will affect the uptake of History at age fourteen. As a History and English graduate, part of me thinks this is Historians trying to justify their jobs, turkeys not voting for Christmas if you will, but maybe they are onto something. 

So maybe in three or four years’ time students will be leaving prestige secondary schools with A levels in the sciences, maths, english and to a lesser extent, languages and geography/ history. What is going to happen to Music and Art departments in schools across the land? Hopefully they will not vanish altogether. For instance I can see them staying on vestigially in independent schools who have such a large curriculum to fill (all that prep and Saturday morning study), but as for state schools like my local school, I really don’t know. I would hope they might put a finger up to the league tables and accept that they are going to be scoring badly when assessed on ‘facilitating subjects’ and continue to fund their less academic, yet economically useful, subjects. And therein lies the crux of the matter. Funding.