Barely a week goes by that we don’t hear about how our (state) schools are failing us, their pupils, the economy, the nation: take your pick. The latest has OFSTED turning up ‘evidence’ that state schools are letting down bright children. Apparently, they fail to make the progress they should in the secondary phase and the clinching proof is that not enough of them get to top universities like Oxford and Cambridge. This government, which seems so laissez-faire in many respects, is being told by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of OFSTED, that they should be “encouraging secondary schools to identify bright children in the final year of primary education and track them between the age of 11 and 16 to make sure they fulfil their potential” and, in addition (according to The Telegraph of 26 May) “schools may be told to ensure able pupils sit the toughest A-level subjects that are currently seen as a route into top universities.” Further, a lot of this namby-pamby ‘mixed ability teaching’ is apparently also to blame: more streaming is required, so it seems.
So, time to unpick. Firstly, why do we assume that the grades children achieved in their Key Stage 2 SATs are a perfect indicator of their potential to go on to get As and A*s at GCSE? We know the system is open to abuse and that ‘hot-housing’ at the end of the primary phase is often found by secondary teachers to have over-estimated this potential. Secondly, in my experience, the core subjects of Maths, English and Science are streamed virtually throughout the two secondary key stages. The fact that others aren’t is down to funding: where students have opted at 14+, there will probably be too few students to allow a cost-effective division into enough groups for ‘streaming’ to be viable. Of course, in the private sector, maybe they can afford penny numbers in teaching groups…
Finally, Wilshaw also assumes that, per se, the attainment of a top university place is the be-all and end-all. The fact that such a small proportion of state school students — compared to private school children — go on in this way is proof positive that their state secondary schools have failed them. Well, is it?
Turn now to the Guardian last Thursday, 30 May, and a report by the Sutton Trust. A survey conducted by Ipsos Mori on behalf of the Trust, an educational charity aimed at increasing educational inclusion, shows that more and more young people are put off university by the cost. Over two-thirds of those polled said they had significant concerns about the costs of higher education and, in the current climate, they must be weighing up the dubious benefits of a university education against long-term debt. Of course, that’s not the full story but before Wilshaw and his media mates sound off yet again about ‘failing teachers’ or ‘failing state schools’ he needs to join the dots between the information he has bidden his cohorts to gather — with, no doubt, ulterior intent — and other data that is out there.