Two years ago theWest Midlands Region embarked on a project which we called “Beyond the Ebacc.” We chose the title because we recognised then that the Coalition government was intent on embedding the Ebacc as the gold standard qualification at 16 and wanted our party, the Liberal Democrats, to emerge from coalition with our own radical policies in this critical area.
We were able to draw on a wide range of experience, including that of overseeing education in large municipal authorities.
Our concern was the stark evidence that our school system is failing many young people. Every government that has sought to “raise” achievement has increased failure. Even by the long-standing measure of 5 A-C GCSEs, about half the population of 16 year olds fails. Even worse there are clear problems with boys, for whom learning is increasingly uncool and for whom studying English at GCSE is definitely unmasculine. This has been epitomised by dreadful levels of achievement among poor, white working class boys.
But there was also evidence of successful strategies – too often undermined by the changing of goal-posts by national governments. Vocational studies had engaged many young people but the Diploma programme, which sought to extend them, was a failure. Functional skills have been embedded in maths and English GCSEs.
Our conclusions were liberal and radical and created a buzz among some of the region’s top educationalists. We talked of a massive extension of choice for students and of using modern technology to boost resources for teaching and learning. We reaffirmed our party’s commitment to integrating vocational and academic education, seeing it as the route to engage many youngsters with the joy of maths or the benefits of good English. We didn’t want dumbing down and we did want better learning.
We were excited by our findings and were looking for a way to present them to the wider party.
Imagine my dismay at yesterday’s announcement when both Nick Clegg and David Laws seemed to sign us up to a narrow backward looking vision of education, to more goal-post shifting that will make educational achievement tougher and more remote than ever for even more teenagers. Nick’s gold standard has always been social mobility – but I had thought this meant social mobility for the many, not the few who can attain top grades in the new Ebacc.
It is not just the leadership who should face questions. On Saturday afternoon in Brightonthe Federal Conference will debate a motion on education. It is not clear who has written it but it appears to have been written in anticipation of yesterday’s announcement. There are well-meaning paragraphs about vocational education but also a call for a “vocational equivalent to the Ebacc.” These are dangerous words, which would simultaneously embed Michael Gove’s Ebacc in party policy and end our commitment to a single qualification at 16 by treating vocational education as a separate course of study. Because they are not prominent in the motion, there is a danger that conference will accept them by default and then find it is reported as having adopted the Coalition Ebacc as Liberal Democrat policy.
We had tabled some of our ideas as an amendment to this, to restore our party’s approach to truly integrated study in a call for choice and opportunity for all young people. In the light of yesterday’s announcement it is imperative that Conference Committee tables our amendment and allows a proper and full debate on the future of secondary school qualifications.
* Jon Hunt is regional policy chair in the West Midlands<.a>. He is currently deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Birmingham City Council and was chair of the council’s education scrutiny committee for six years.