I taught my regular session on the University’s MA in Education last week. Each year, I teach a slot on politics, policy and practice in education reform. Drawing on examples from around the world, I try to explore the ways in which political ideas, policy implementation and professional practice interact in the way educational change is shaped and planned. I draw the examples broadly to make the point that the relationships between politicians, civil servants and practitioners are different in different places, but we can learn a lot from the differences. I always try to update my examples to reflect current developments, but last week I had a bonanza. I really could not have timed the session better, or, put differently, it was very good of the Conservative Party to plan their conference for just before my session, and to put the Prime Minister himself at my disposal.
In his big set-piece speech at the conference, Rishi Sunak outlined three major policy interventions: he cancelled HS2, set out plans to make the purchase of cigarettes illegal by progressively raising the age at which it is permitted to buy them and announced the abolition of A-levels and T-levels, replacing them with an Advanced British Standard. The decision to reform 16-29 qualifications provided me with an exemplary case study in the interaction of political ideas, the technicalities of policy implementation and the messy realities of practice.
Almost everyone agrees that the 16-19 curriculum needs reform. The academic track is too narrow, with students studying just three subjects in great depth. The technical track has been subject to recent reform and is arguably narrower since one career-specific T-level is equivalent to three A-levels. The Prime Minister’s announcement does what politicians frequently do: articulates a widely held view that something needs to be done, and his determination to ensure ‘parity of esteem’ between academic and technical qualifications is far from new.
However. The idea that qualifications can be reformed by a government at what may be the end of its tenure is for the birds. Curriculum and qualification reform is slow burn stuff – and the Prime Minister’s spokespeople admitted as such the next day, agreeing that any reform of 16-19 would take at least a decade. Moreover, the argument about ‘parity of esteem’ has been live in education policy since 1861. It has defied every policy intervention. In my lifetime there have been serious attempts at 16-19 reform in 1976, 1988, 2001 and 2004. Each one has failed because the groundwork wasn’t done. Indeed, the present government had invested a lot of effort in the development of T-levels not to provide a coherent integrated framework for 16-19 but to force a choice between academic and technical tracks at 16. By one of those quirks which makes one think that politics is indeed scripted by the authors of The Thick of It, last week was declared by the Department for Education to be ‘T-level week’. It’s questionable – which is a polite way of saying impossible – to think about A-level and T-level reform without also thinking about GCSEs and about transition from 16-19 to university.
Most serious policy commentators took the Prime Minister’s aspirations with a pinch of salt. The technical work involved in marrying a three subject A-level structure with a single T-level looks challenging. Integrating both with the requirement for all students to do English and Mathematics to 18, including those who have failed to secure a Level 2 qualification by 16 looks formidable. Finding the resources, including enough teachers, to make any of this happen makes it all look impossible. And designating the new structure as an ‘Advanced British Standard’ when education in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland is a devolved matter puts the whole enterprise in doubt.
The Prime Minister’s speech demonstrated how easy it is for politicians to be both completely right about something and completely wrong. The most successful education reforms of the past generation have had a very different pedigree. Gillian Shephard, the Conservative Secretary of State for Education under John Major laid the foundations for the successful literacy and numeracy strategies which were adopted by David Blunkett and New Labour. Before that, the GCSE examination, which completed the work of raising the school leaving age to 16, was implemented by Mrs Thatcher’s Secretary of State, Sir Keith Joseph, but built on technical work which had begun under Labour. In both cases, thoughtful politicians built on detailed work and either understood the complexities of implementation or were willing to allow policy implementation work to be done.