Monthly Archives: May 2015

T2 – The 1944 Education Act and the “Tripartite” System – Michael Pyke

The BBC’s coverage of education has long been problematic for an organisation which is offically politically neutral. The Programmes on the Grammar Schools broadcast of January 5th and 12th 2012 was one feature of the re-emergence of the old selective system in state education which has been a feature of the rise of UKIP and the strengthening of the hold of the hard right in the Tory Party. Despite a strong campaign against the many historical errors, the BBC complaints procedure failed to address the issues raised by critics and the programmes were broadcast twice on BBC4.

 An issue of wide importance is the emergence of the tripartite system of Grammar, Technical and Modern schools. Widely believed to be in the 1944 Act of Rab Butler (Tory), in this piece Michael Pyke points out it was in fact the 1946 Act which created this, and that was a Labour creation. Trevor Fisher

The BBC4 film broadcast in January 2012 The Grammar School: A Secret History stated that the 1944 Education Act “set out to create educational opportunities for all. There was to be a three tiered education system…all geared to the different abilities of pupils.” This is a view so commonly held that it comes as a surprise to many people to learn that it is wrong. What the Act actually says is that:

“…education shall be organised in three progressive stages to be known as primary education, secondary education, and further education; and it shall be the duty of the local education authority for every area, so far as their powers extend, to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental, and physical development of the community by securing that efficient education throughout those stages shall be available to meet the needs of the population of their area.”

There is no mention here or elsewhere in the Act of any particular system of secondary education, tripartite or otherwise. All that the law will require is that free secondary education will be provided to all pupils. The cause of so many people’s confusion is probably that, whereas the Act itself resulted from planning begun in 1941 by the wartime coalition government and was piloted through Parliament by R.A.Butler, its actual implementation fell to the new Labour government elected in 1945 and specifically to the first post-war Minister of Education Ellen Wilkinson.

Wilkinson, whose life and career deserve a great deal more attention than they have received to date, was a pioneering woman of the first order. A passionate idealist, she envisioned a new level of education, in which children would be motivated by inspiring teachers who would generate enthusiasm and self-confidence in their pupils. She would have liked immediately to raise the leaving age to 16 and provide free school meals to all but was prevented by the cost of such measures (she did, however, succeed in introducing free milk into schools, a measure which lasted until Mrs Thatcher abolished it).

However, Wilkinson also had a strong loyalty to the selective system of schooling which had enabled her, a working class girl, to go to Manchester University in 1910 and she was inclined therefore to try to preserve this system. Her thinking was shared by Prime Minister Clement Attlee. Attlee’s love of his public school – Haileybury – is sometimes cited as a source of educational conservatism on his part but there were also powerful financial considerations at work. The advantage to a cash-strapped government of keeping the selective system was very clear in that the buildings and teaching force were largely already in place. Another source of pressure to retain selection in secondary schooling was the Ministry of Education itself, whose officials worked tirelessly to promote the idea.

Accordingly, on December 12th, 1945, Wilkinson issued Circular 73, in which local authorities were instructed to “think in terms of three types” of state secondary school – “grammar”, “technical” and “modern”. An accompanying booklet, The Nation’s Schools, explained that the new “modern” schools would be for working-class children “whose future employment will not demand any measure of technical skill or knowledge”.

Many Labour Party members, who had expected Britain to follow the lead of many European countries and introduce comprehensive schools, were outraged and Wilkinson was forced to withdraw the circular. Nevertheless, under intense pressure from Ministry officials, the government persisted with the policy and re-stated it in another document, The New Secondary Education, issued in 1947. It is one of the ironies of our history that the government which did so much to diminish the effects of the social class structure, chose to reinforce that same structure when it came to education.

Financial pressures aside, it remains a matter of historical debate as to why an otherwise radical and pioneering government acted so timidly in the field of education. The public schools and direct grant schools were left unscathed and the state system embraced an already outdated model, from which we are still suffering the consequences. The one really forward looking idea of the Attlee government, the technical schools, was never seriously implemented and, to this day, we remain wedded to the idea of the rightness of hierarchy within our educational system. None of this can be laid at the door of Butler’s 1944 Act, which created an opportunity for modernisation that was simply ignored.

Footnote: In February, 1947, Ellen Wilkinson died at the age of 55, having taken an overdose of barbiturates. At the time it was given out that the overdose had been “accidental”. Commentators now believe that she committed suicide. In his superb online Education in England: a brief history, Derek Gillard suggests that her motive was disillusionment and disappointment at her failure to get many of her ideals implemented. Others believe that the trigger was the refusal of Herbert Morrison, with whom she had had a lengthy affair, to leave his estranged wife and marry her.

C3 – Should School Education be Transferred from Local Authorities to Combined Authorities?

The policy of both the Tories and Labour is for the spread of Combined Authorities (CAs). The Greater Manchester Combined Authority was established in 2011. Combined authorities were established in the Sheffield City Region, West Yorkshire, the Liverpool City Region, and the North East in April 2014. Greater Manchester has since been granted a number of additional powers and funding streams by the Government. In addition, CAs are being proposed for areas including Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, the Tees Valley, Greater Bristol, PUSH (Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight), Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire (as one unit), and Birmingham and the Black Country. The spread of devolution to CAs marks a fundamental change in the model of local government in England.

The devolution plans don’t affect local school systems at present, but there are already some voices within the Labour Party advocating their incorporation

A precedent for control of local school systems at a regional or sub-regional level is set by the proposal in Education and Children, Labour’s education policy document, for a new role of local Directors of School Standards. The idea is imported from the Labour Party’s Review of education structures, functions and the raising of standards for all: Putting students and parents first, known for short as the Blunkett Review, published in April 2014, and itself owes something to the Coalition’s Regional School Commissioners. The DSS would be responsible for ‘school improvement’ in an area covering two or more LAs, and would be appointed and employed jointly by them.

In March Compass published the final report of its Inquiry into Education (‘supported by the NUT’). It says ‘responsibility for providing school places should lie with clusters of local authorities operating at a scale that supports strategic decision-making.’ Regarding Local Education Plans, ‘Larger areas, such as Greater Manchester, might be the right scale for strategic planning for skills and economic development as well as for local education planning and governance.’ (Appendices p3). And ‘Overseeing the plans and holding to account education providers, including councils, would be the job of a new body, a local education board.’ It would ‘operate at a level above single local authorities’ (p4).

On 12 March John Bolt, secretary of the Socialist Educational Association, asked in his blog Education for Everyone ‘Is Devo-Manc radical enough? And why are schools left out?’ He answered his second question as follows:

For Labour though there could be an easy answer. Put the Director of School Standards within the combined authority framework answerable to a board made up of elected members and other stakeholders and ultimately to the elected Mayor or Leader.

And in the March issue of the SEA journal Education Politics Graham Clayton, a member of the New Visions for Education group, calls for new Regional Education Boards, comprising councillors appointed by its constituent councils, to replace existing local authorities. Each Board would employ the DSS as its chief education officer.

It is clear that a current of opinion has emerged within Labourist circles which accepts as its two premises the move to Combined Authorities and Labour’s Directors of School Standards, and on that basis makes the case for regional Education Boards to replace local authorities’ role in education.

Who would be the members of these Boards? According to Clayton it would be just councillors; according to Bolt it would be councillors and ‘other stakeholders’; for Compass it would be councillors and ‘representatives of other education interests’. It isn’t clear if the councillors would be chosen from the councils which make up the Combined Authority or would be elected on some other basis.

These are not inspiring visions of participative democracy. But the reality is that the Labour leadership has absolutely no intention of creating any sort of democratic body at the level of the CA.

Labour’s policy on devolution to CAs makes no mention of any form of democratic governance of the CAs.1

Nor are there any specific proposals to increase democratic participation in Labour’s education policy document Education and Children. It claims that ‘Labour will empower local communities to have a greater say about education in their area, rather than continue the top-down control approach to schools demonstrated by the current Government’ (p78) but is silent on what structures and procedures would enable local communities to effectively participate in decision-making in their local school system. Its predecessor the Blunkett Review does contain one innovative proposal for widening participation in policy-making: a local Education Panel.

This would include representation from schools in the area, parents and relevant Local Authority representatives, who would work with the DSS on the development of a long-term strategic plan for education, ensure commissioning decisions are taken in line with that plan and agree the budget proposed by the DSS.

But, significantly, the idea of local Education Panels is omitted from the Education and Children policy document.

The transfer of responsibility for school education from local authorities to CAs would remove it from even the very limited democratic accountability that exists at present through elected cabinet members for education and education scrutiny committees and leave power even more securely in the hands of unaccountable academies and academy chains.

Even if the CAs had some sort of elected assembly there is still an argument against them replacing local authorities in education, and that is the question of scale. While CAs might be appropriate for some public services and policy-making – for example regarding economic development or transport – their scale is not suited to democratic participation in the governance and accountability of local school systems. The proposed WMCA, for example, which would comprise six local authorities, would contain around a thousand state schools.

What is our alternative?

I think we have to argue for two things:

  • For school education to remain the responsibility of local authorities, and for these to be radically democratised to open them up to public participation.2 There should of course be collaboration between local authorities within a CA, as there will be on many issues. And this does not preclude Further Education being reintegrated into local government at CA level, for which the scale is more appropriate.
  • For CAs to be based on elected regional assemblies. This is the principle: there are several possible models. The assembly could be directly elected and with proportional representation, as is the London Assembly, or with an element of proportional representation, as is the Welsh Assembly. (Wales has a popular of 3 million, not that much bigger than GMCA’s 2.7m or WMCA’s 2.5m.) Or it could comprise a selection of councillors from the constituent local councils on a proportional political and geographical basis.

Richard Hatcher

2 April 2015


  1. Andrew Carter. ‘Labour’s Devolution Plan’. Centre for Cities. 20 February 2015.
  2. I have argued this in, for example, ‘Democratising Local School Systems: Participation and Vision’ at


C2 – The Baccalaureate Argument Revisited.

Qualification ‘Reform’ – look before you leap

The idea of an exam baccalaureate has been around for several decades, with considerable support. However despite the use of the name for Michael Gove’s English Baccalaureate performance measure, the idea of an over arching qualification has never been adopted. This article considers the reasons why this is the case and why a Royal Commission or similar process of debate would be needed to achieve an exam bacc. Author – Richard Pring

Beware too much haste  

The current arguments for a new English Baccalaureate are persuasive, and I do not disagree with the reasons usually given for such a change, especially in relation to the extended leaving age of formal education and training to 18 and the need to think of a coherent educational experience from 14 to 18.

In that respect, it is important to remember that major developments to the examinations structure in England over several decades have reflected: first, the gradual extension of the school leaving age; second, the accompanying need for all the leavers to have formal recognition of what they have achieved; third, recognition of the diversity of such achievements. Therefore, to reflect the present extension of compulsory education and training from age 16 (when GCSE was the leaving qualification for most) to 18, it would seem necessary, first, to mark those achievements for everyone with a universally recognised qualification at 18, and, second, in such a qualification, to respect the diversity of those achievements. Moreover, such recognition cannot be trapped within the false dualism of ‘academic and vocational’. Such a dualism does not make logical sense, and moreover it perpetuates the ‘inequality of esteem’ for different sorts of achievement. Therefore, the establishment of a unitary and overarching qualification at 18 – a Baccalaureate – would seem the correct way forward.

However, my reservations with current proposals, are not with the overall aim, but with the mode of proceeding. My concern arises from reflection upon the history of changes and ‘new initiatives’ within the evolving system of qualifications. We need to learn from the past – both successes and failures.

For example, in anticipation of the school leaving age to 16 (finally achieved in 1972), there were several reports (Crowther in 1958, Beloe in 1960, Newsom in 1963), and much curriculum development from the newly formed Schools Council, before the Certificate of Secondary Education successfully began in 1965 – the very first time that a publicly funded examination was available for those deemed to be below O Level ability. Many of the 20 Examination Bulletins and a series of Working Papers from the newly established Schools Council were, over a period of several years, devoted to the development of the new examination.

Again, the ‘merging’ of GCE O Level and the CSE into a unified school leaving qualification, viz. the GCSE, followed many years of deliberation and reports (for example, the 1978 Waddell Commission School Examinations, the 1987 HMI ‘Red Book’ Curriculum 11-16) before its inauguration in 1988. Side by side with these developments, there developed qualifications thought more suitable for those motivated by ‘pre-vocational courses’ based on the occupational interests of those who were soon to move into employment. Excellent curriculum thinking, especially by the Further Education Unit (FEU), went into the development of these courses – but each was short-lived. CGLI 365 was superseded by CPVE, superseded by DoVE, superseded by GNVQ, superseded by Ed Balls’ 14-19 Diplomas (‘the qualification of choice for everyone’) which lasted three years before its slow death – despite its merits.

Within the current GCSE and GCE A level, there have been many changes (for example, re-grading of achievement from A-E to 1-9, decoupling of AS qualification from the full A Level qualification, removal of practical science from contributing to final grades, creation and then quick abandonment of ALCAB). These changes baffle employers, universities and teachers who have to implement them. Indeed, partly to escape such changes and to preserve a qualification which is widely trusted (and beyond the reach of political interference) the majority of independent schools take the International GCSE (IGCSE), thereby creating a two tier system – one for the independent schools and another for the maintained and the state schools.

We have also witnessed several well argued proposals, which share many of the aims of those advocating the Baccalaureate, but which have failed to take root, for example:

  • Dearing Report on post-16 in 1994 (proposing three broad pathways – (i) craft leading to NVQ, (ii) broad pre-vocational leading to GNVQ, (iii) academic leading to A Level);
  • Moser’s ‘National Commission’ Report in 1993 ‘Learning to Succeed’;
  • Tomlinson Report in 2004 proposing an English Baccalaureate’s group award with four levels of attainment;
  • Nuffield Review in 2009 – again arguing for a Baccalaureate.

We need to ask why these well argued proposals – particularly Tomlinson which received wide acclamation – failed to be implemented, lest yet new proposals, whatever their merits, suffer the same fate. We need to ask, too, why so many changes made with the best of intentions fail to survive before yet further changes are seen to be needed.

The point is that changes to the examination structure challenge well-entrenched political or popular assumptions. Or, if implemented, such changes almost inevitably result in unforeseen consequences which lead to constant but temporary repair work. Rather is it the case that (as shown from the past) long-lasting educational developments are generally preceded by a prolonged period of deliberation, engaged in systematically, calling upon relevant research, seeking agreement and co-operation across the political spectrum, anticipating the easily unforeseen consequences of the reforms. Royal Commissions of the 19th century provide examples. Newcastle Report of 1861, leading to the Forster Act of 1870 (which provided the framework for a national system of elementary education), followed two years of deliberation. Bryce Report in 1895, leading to the Balfour Act of 1902 and long-lasting reforms, followed two years of deliberation. Crowther Report of 1958 followed three years of deliberation. Beloe report of 1960 (extending publicly funded exams below O Level) followed two years of deliberation. Robbins Report of 1963 on Higher Education followed three years of deliberation.

The message is clear. Whatever the strength of the current arguments for a Baccalaureate, success will be achieved only after details have been thoroughly hammered out over a prolonged period.

Back, therefore, to something like a Royal Commission or a Central Advisory Council, with wide representation from those who are affected by the changes: schools, further education, universities, employers, parents, students, examination boards, and research foundations. Such a Commission or Council would take evidence and deliberate, as in the past, for about two years before producing a comprehensive report which would have widespread agreement, the confidence of all concerned and a more permanent future.

In what follows I detail the many different aspects which, in the light of experience and yet in the failure to be recognised, would lead to yet another failed ‘reform’.

Issues to be addressed

(i) Aims of education and accountability

Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training began with the question: ‘What counts as an educated 19 year-old in this day and age?’ – requiring an answer which would do justice to the range of qualities that, through formal learning, enable all young people to develop an understanding of the physical, social and moral worlds they have inherited, moral qualities, a sense of personal worth and dignity, and civic virtues essential to a democracy. A valid accountability of schools requires such a broad spectrum of aims.

Problems which need to be addressed, therefore, lie in the restriction (due to the current system of accountability) to narrow forms of academic achievement and the consequent failure to recognise the range of qualities which are equally important not only in personal development but also in subsequent civic and working lives.

(ii) Getting agreement from schools, universities, employers, FE, political spectrum

There are several competing systems. Many private schools have chosen the OCR’s International GCSE (IGCSE) which is seen as more academically demanding as well as having much valued international reach. In addition, about 150 schools take the Cambridge Pre-U examinations. Many others take the International Baccalaureate. Arising from such diversity and from so many changes, two systems (GCSE and IGCSE) have arisen and re-enforce a two-tier system of schooling, viz. namely, the private and the public sectors. Furthermore, those who ‘recruit’ from schools, namely, universities and employers, find it difficult to understand what the qualifications ‘qualify’ the candidate to do. How do these qualifications meet, for example, the employers’ needs? How might changes meet Universities’ needs? Mr. Gove established ALCAB (‘A Level Content Advisory Board’) through which universities might be involved in reforms; but his successor abolished it. Government de-coupled AS Level from A Level, but universities complained since AS Level (as an integral part of A Level) was seen to be important in the selection of candidates.

(iii) Attaching importance to communication skills

Bullock Report (1975), Language for Life, argued persuasively for focus on ‘oracy’ – capacity to communicate fluently through speech. Such a capacity was emphasised in the development of CSE in the 1960s together with the modes of assessment and of moderating teachers’ judgements. Such oracy is no longer part of the examined curriculum. Hence, problem to be faced is that of restoring the recognition of such communications skills within a reformed system of qualifications, for presently it is a matter, not of worthwhile aims determining assessment, but of assessment determining curriculum content Such capacities now play no or little part in the examinations

(iv) Attaching importance to practical skills and intelligence

Practical intelligence (ability to do and make, to identify and correct practical problems) is as demanding and as important as the so-called ‘academic intelligence’. Yet it is constantly regarded as ‘second class’ in the educational system. ‘Design and Technology’ was not included in the EBacc subjects. But interestingly the BTEC qualification remains a sought-after qualification and one would need to see how that is retained in any reform. But the problems are two-fold. First, there is a widespread cultural disdain for practice-oriented subjects as opposed to those which are regarded as academic – a disdain which has been seen as a problem ever since Commissions and Acts of Parliament in the 19th century attempted to rectify it. Second, we have seen the removal of practical experiments from the GCSE and A Level science grading, leading to ‘great potential damage’ according to the Welcome Trust (echoed by the Nuffield Foundation, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, and the Association of School Science). Ofqual has said that practical assessment failed to distinguish good candidates and exam questions could not test skills learned in the lab. Again, a matter of assessment determining curriculum.

(v) Teaching to the test and league tables

There is considerable evidence on the ‘gaming’ and teaching to the test which now takes place so that the learners might attain the grades and schools might rise in the league tables (see Mansell, 2007, Learning by Numbers). Ofqual’s statistics (Dec. 2014) point to the rise of 61% in the number of schools and colleges found guilty of malpractice last year, with 217 penalty notices issued, one for 30 schools and colleges. The 2004 Smith Report, Mathematics Counts argues that even those who achieved high scores in maths A Level lacked the understanding which enabled them to proceed to university degree courses. A problem therefore is how to devise a system of examining which does not lead to ‘teaching to the test’ and to the ‘gaming’ which currently occurs – and indeed to the advantages gained by those who can afford the intensive coaching for top university places. Problems are exacerbated by textbooks produced by the respective Boards.

(vi) Modular versus linear course

The Government has recommended a removal of the modular approach to examinations on the grounds that it leads to a ‘re-sit culture’ (part of the ‘gaming’ to raise scores) and that it breaks up the gradual accumulation of deeper knowledge. However, many believe that (a) such a break-up of the development of knowledge is more beneficial and motivating to many learners, and (b) where examinations are ‘criterion referenced’, the opportunity to try again until one has acquired the requisite knowledge or skill is to be welcome. Such a disagreement needs to be resolved in any new system.

(vii) Unexpected consequences and need for large timescale for reforms

The many changes to the examination system point to the need, following widespread investigations and experience, of the possible unintended consequences of changes made. A serious example of such was the 2000 curriculum ‘reform’ of A Level resulting in a drop of 20% in the number proceeding to take mathematics at A Level. Following the failings after the introduction of the new-style AS levels in 2001, the DES warned

We recognize absolutely that there are lessons to be learned for the future about

The way in which we implement major reforms … Detailed planning and

extensive trialling are essential so that we can be confident that all systems are in

place and teachers and examiners are fully trained in new requirements before

they are introduced.

(viii) One or several Examination Boards?

Currently there are three GCSE and A Level Exam Boards for England and one for Wales, plus BTEC, ASDAN and ‘vocational qualifications’ Boards. Each is an independent company, although they need to abide by Government requirements if they are to receive public funding for those entering for their qualifications. (OCR’s IGCSE is not recognized for funding and league table purposes). Problems are raised concerning competition between Boards and the danger of lower standards due to competition. One solution has been the allocation of different subjects to different Boards, the competition thereby lying in the quality of what is being proposed by each Board. The argument for the preservation of different Boards is that the expertise of each encourages innovation.

(ix) Grading system.

There are two difficulties to be faced: first, the respective roles of ‘criterion referencing’ and ‘norm referencing'; second, the relation between old and new systems. Initially GCSE was graded A to E where each grade was supposedly criterion referenced, and where C Grade was seen as equivalent to top grade of CSE. It is important, when examinations are changed, that those using the exams (employers and universities) know the rough equivalence between old and new. There are difficulties which need to be addressed. Despite exams supposedly being criterion referenced, in fact norm referencing helped decisions on grade allocations. Furthermore, over time, FtoD grades of GCSE indicate no longer what examinees can do but rather ‘failed GCSE’. In recent Government proposals changing grades from AtoF to 1to9 needs to reconcile the two grading systems – to demonstrate ‘comparable outcomes’. This was to be achieved through a statistical technique based on norm referencing, viz. National Reference Test, developed by the Boards in 2002 to ensure the first cohort of new A Levels were not disadvantaged and the national proportion of students gaining each grade remained roughly the same to curb grade inflation. But no Board has sought the contract because of technical difficulties.

(x) Equivalence across strands and levels

Presumably the advantage of a Baccalaureate over the present system is that quite separate systems (dubiously called ‘academic’, ‘pre-vocational’ and ‘vocational’) will be brought together in a single system with no doubt distinctive strands and levels. It is difficult to see how the equivalence between these strands and levels will overcome the difficulties which were encountered in the creation of the NQF (National Qualifications Framework) then superseded by the QCF (Qualifications Credit Framework).

(xi) Relations with other parts of the UK

Wales has introduced the Welsh Bacc, Northern Ireland retains GCSE and A Level, Scotland has its ‘Highers’. It is necessary to show how a new system ties up with those of other countries within the UK and the IB. Are there lessons to be learnt?

(xii) Who should control the curriculum?

The 1944 Education Act bequeathed to the Minister of Education no control over the curriculum. The 1988 Education Act reversed all that and created a National Curriculum ultimately to be agreed by the Secretary of State. Mr Gove dictated detailed content of the history curriculum 5 to 16, including key characters worth detailed study. He withdrew Clive of India after he was described as nothing other than ‘a sociopathic corrupt thug’.. What degree of central control would be advised by those advocating the Baccalaureate?


Advocates of a unitary system of 14-18 qualifications must learn from the past. Success will arise only after a considerable period of examining the problems arising from past reforms and after addressing the issues which have been briefly outlined above.

For more detailed arguments, reference is made to two documents produced by SOSS, The English Baccalaureate: a Tangled Web scrutinised (2013) and Exam Reform – Unresolved Issues (2014). Both are available via the SOSS website.

B1 – Educational apartheid at 16 plus?

Summary: This article comments on the growing division in exam take up between the Private and State School sectors. The private fee paying schools may reject Michael Gove’s reformed GCSEs and opt for the International GCSE, which is not open to interference from domestic politicians. If the state schools opt to follow government policy, English Schools could see Educational Apartheid. Author: Trevor Fisher – originally published in the TES.

Interviewed in the Times Educational Supplement in the middle of April, Frances O’Grady of the TUC was right to argue that the divide between the maintained and public schools is damaging socially in many ways.

And things are set to get worse. Exam reform at 16 plus, perversely, threatens to end one of the few areas where there is a level playing field.

The current exams at the end of Year 11 have long been divided into two systems, the International GCSE (IGCSE) running alongside the mainstream GCSE, mainly for international schools who wished to retain O Level style qualifications. In recent years the IGCSE has become increasingly popular for domestic private schools, creating the illusion that O Level was still available – but only for the private sector.

Whether the IGCSE is in fact an O Level exam and therefore harder than GCSE has never been objectively established, but the fact is that private schools have been moving in numbers to take it. Indeed critics of the private schools claim the IGCSE is in fact easier than GCSE but there is no solid evidence either way.

With rival claims and two parallel systems, it was therefore welcome when Michael Gove changed the rules on performance tables and exam entry to allow state schools to take the IGCSE. This was at least a level playing field. Performance tables reported both, and there was no significant difference detected.

This came to an abrupt halt when the Conservative-Lib Dem government removed IGCSE from the performance tables, (though its approval for state schools and thus funding does not seem to have been affected). The argument was that IGCSEs were not being reformed in the style of mainstream GCSEs and therefore should not count. As a result in January of this year schools like Westminster fell to the bottom of the performance tables, having continued to do IGCSE and having therefore no successes to report. But they can continue to take the exams because league tables are not a major worry.

But when Schools Minister Nick Gibb made the announcement, he created a major obstacle for state schools to do them.

This is a decision which deserves more scrutiny than it has received, but the key immediate point is that a divided system is in prospect, with IGCSE for the private sector and GCSE for state schools.

It is claimed that the new GCSE is harder than the IGCSE, but this claim too needs close examination. OFQUAL have always refused to do trialing or piloting of new exams, or comparative studies of the two systems.

The argument becomes more bizarre as OFQUAL is now seeking a National Reference Test, which is supposed to provide highly accurate evidence for benchmarking the exam system. Like the league tables for GCSE, private schools will be allowed to avoid the NRP. It is impossible to see legislation forcing the private schools to do a test for an examination they do not do.

The net effect of these changes is likely to be to create a two tier system, with GCSEs largely confined to the state sector. The media can be expected to see this in terms of a superior public school system and an inferior state system, whatever the government says.

The importance of IGCSE has largely flown under the radar, as has its popularity in the private sector. After the Gove reforms allowed state schools to take the exam, it did not much matter what exam system was adopted by teachers. Performance tables did not discriminate. But this situation is likely to end as government changes come into force.

The solution? As a first step, it is vitally important to restore the full rights of state schools to take IGCSE, and end discrimination of the basis of performance tables. After that, a serious examination of the merits of both systems should be undertaken.

Alas as things stand, English schools could face educational apartheid with two separate exams system developing at 16 plus.

We are risking English schools splitting into two separate exam paths, with massive implications for social mobility and educational decision making. We are looking at educational apartheid

Trevor Fisher

Published on the Times Educational Supplement web site 5th May 2015


T1 – Education and the Politicians

Over the last half century, education in post-industrial societies has been subjected to political intervention. The tradition of relying on professional expertise in decision making has been eroded in favour of political interference. The old systems which saw professionals as the key operators has been undermined in many ways, differing from country to country but most powerfully limited in those countries which have been affected by what Pasi Sahlberg has called The GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement. His own country, Finland, has been one of the few not powerfully affected. However in England, more than in the other four nations of the UK, the GERM has had powerful effects.

England has, of course, a strong element of fee paying private schools, and these are largely immune from the GERM, to their benefit. It is in the state sector that politicians interfere, and this site will examine ways in which this has operated in schools controlled by the Department currently known as the Department for Education. However politicians have had effects across the system, and schools exams are a key area of contestation in which the private schools have themselves been affected. However it is the state sector which has seen a revolution, one which has turned the old tradition of non interference on its head, in all the countries of the UK including Scotland, but a revolution overwhelmingly most powerful in England.

It is almost impossible now to remember the old tradition of non interference which operated up to Prime Minister Callaghan’s Ruskin Speech of 1976. The 1944 Education Act gave the Secretary of State only two major powers – capital spending to provide enough schools, and the supply of qualified teachers to staff those schools. Democratically elected Local Authorities administered the schools, while the head teachers may have operated with little accountability leading to complaints in the sixties of a “Secret Garden”, there were checks and balances in the system notably strong trade unions and national bargaining structures. Within this system reform operated with consent leading to the replacement of the eleven plus, in most areas, with comprehensives secondary schools. Primary schools have always been comprehensive in the state sector.

Since the Black Papers of the pre-Thatcher era, this paradigm has disappeared. The Secretary of State has massive legal powers, over 2000, though paradoxically the supply of enough schools and qualified teachers have been abandoned. Today politicians in Westminster interfere constantly, even when they claim to value non interference. Local councils have been stigmatised as failed control freaks, decision making is decentralised to unaccountable bodies, but a system of hyper accountablity by league tables seeks to control the system from the centre. Teachers are increasingly treated as of little account and their workload has reached unsustainable levels. At the heart of the system a paradox of deregulation to the school and college level while increased accountablity and interference means that the academy sector and the maintained school sector dance to different and contradictory tunes.

There is a furore of debate, within the limits set by the pattern of deregulation and hyper accountability, but not on the overall paradigm and whether short term politicians should make long term decisions. The justification of permanent revolution is improved standards, notably to meet alleged international league table failings, but there is little serious and systematic evaluation of the trajectory of travel.

While the OECD and its international league tables are highly problematic, it reported in January 2015 that only 10% of political initiatives across the globe are properly tested and sounded alarm bells. Politicians do not want to be shown up as having failing, and are adept at shifting the blame onto the professionals. There is a paradigm of blame shifting in many countries, only partly due to the OECD league tables. The virtual “War on Teachers” is political intervention at its worst.

The driver is the search for measurable improvements showing better test results, and sometimes this happens. The London Challenge is a positive example – but many interventions are expensive failures. From the Thatcher TVEI (Technical and Vocational Education Initiative – attempted to improve technical education and failed) to Labour’s failed Diplomas of the Brown era, initiatives are imposed and then quietly forgotten. The most consistent theme has been that of the Black Papers. From the early 1970s the ideas of the reactionary traditionalism of the Conservative right has skewed thinking in Westminster. The Black Papers themselves are largely forgotten, but their core message – that educational professionals fail and politicians must intervene to impose ideology on educationalists – has dominated since James Callaghan’s Ruskin speech of 1976.

While politicians would never tell doctors what drugs to prescribe, politicians do tell teachers how to teach and impose non-expert and undemocratic managers onto schools and colleges. In part this too is a facet of a wider paradigm, neo-liberalism and the attempt to politicise all public services so they can be taken out of democratic control, but in education the idea that politicians know best and expert opinion can be ignored or stigmatised is now all pervasive. There are increasingly sharp contradictions. The National Curriculum is regarded as vital – but is ignored for the allegedly innovative academy sector. Exam reform depends on the whim of the minister. Gove brought in the Russell Group Universties through the A Level Content Advisory Board (ALCAB) – and within months of replacing Gove, Nicky Morgan abolished it. Logic and consistency in this situation are as rare as hens teeth.

There are signs that this philosophy is now having malign consequences. The democratic deficit as the real scrutiny of initiatives diminishes and media accept dubious and largely untested programmes as virtual magic bullets overcoming the experts who are dismissed as marginal is now clearly operative in England, where All Power to the School has meant All Power to the Minister – or the inspector – or other unaccountable power centres.The dominant paradigm and its variants must now be scrutinised and the politicians and their allies in OECD held to account. SOSS aims to advancing this process – because what is happening is not sustainable.

When James Callaghan made his Ruskin speech in 1976, he was in part bowing to the influence of the Black Papers. However the old Tory Right could never have imagined hyper accountability, league tables, and the role now played by politicians and academy chains in setting the agenda for schooling. This is now a culture in which educationalists are diminished. The role of evidence is marginal and subordinate to political agendas. This paradigm must now be challenged and SOSS will support all efforts to do this.

 Trevor Fisher

 To take part in the debate, please contact the Symposium on Sustainable Schools at Viewpoint, PO Box 3599 ST16 9RD, or on the web at