Jeremy Lewis: Why pupils should have the chance to shine

EXAM league tables are a useful indicator for those parents who take an interest in their children’s education. But they are no more than that.

Parents who base their choice of school only on GCSE and A-level performance are likely to be doing their children a disservice.

  1. Vocational learning: Getting on with the basics of spanners.
    Vocational learning: Getting on with the basics of spanners.

Should they not also consider the records of schools in such matters as culture and morale, discipline, extra-curricular activities and pastoral care?

Should they not be examining every paragraph and every clause of the schools’ most recent Ofsted reports?

So at first glance I was unable to get too worked up about the Education Secretary’s insistence that results in more than 3,000 GCSE-equivalent vocational qualifications be removed from inclusion in league tables.

After all, nobody is saying a school must stop offering vocational courses alongside traditional academic subjects.

Yes, the changes may result in an apparently even wider gap between Knowall School, where achievement has traditionally been measured by success in academic subjects, and Slower Academy, whose disproportionate number of NVQ passes can no longer be factored into the tables.

But if parents are doing their job properly and giving the schools the searching analysis their children’s prospects warrant, will it really matter?

Well, it may, actually. I was put right by Top Valley School head Peter Brown. Like it or not, he told us yesterday, “schools are judged and marketed on where they are in league tables.”

That’s a very great pity, but I dare say Mr Brown knows a lot more about it than I do.

The worry, then, is that schools who have pioneered the advance of vocational options for less academically gifted pupils – sorry, I cannot bring myself to use the fashionable term “students,” which describes an altogether different life form – may feel tempted to reduce that commitment in order to compete for league table points. That could be damaging for young people and their communities.

As Mr Brown says, “We have to look at what the youngsters need when they leave and go into the workplace. It is equally about adding value to their education.”

There appears to be a fundamental disagreement about whether these NVQs really do add value.

To listen to Michael Gove you would conclude that almost all these qualifications are worthless.

No doubt there are some bonkers courses on the schedule of 3,100 excluded qualifications – but surely not most of them. And if those are that are theoretically of sound value now appear worthless, perhaps it is because for the last few years there have been no job interviews at which the certificates can be flourished.

Like Mr Gove I believe there is no substitute for a rounded education; like Mr Gove, I suspect that exams are not as rigorous as they should be.

However I cannot see the point, beyond improving skills in the core academic subjects of English and maths, of compelling non-academic teenagers who are sure to leave school at 16 to stick to an all-academic regime and endure hours of unwanted and, to them, irrelevant teaching.

While insisting on their continued participation in core subject learning, surely it is better to give part of their study time to getting them on the lower rungs of a career ladder.

I don’t have children but if I had I’d much rather – if their hearts were set on mechanics or hairdressing – that, instead of being bored witless at 14 and 15 with European nationalism in the 19th Century or the subtleties of colloquial French, they get on with the basics of spanners and blow-drying.

Schools with great academic records do a great job for their communities, and schools offering more vocational training have the chance to doing a great job in communities where blue-collar skills are in more demand.

The important thing is that all pupils, whatever type of school they attend, get the opportunity to shine in academic subjects.

The lesson to be drawn from all this is that people are as not as picky as they could be when it comes to evaluating schools, which is why even distinguished head teachers like Mr Brown, never mind his worries about the NVQ cull, concede the importance of exam league tables.

If it means schools with a recent history of NVQ education will suffer from increasingly unfair comparison, that is very sad. All the more reason for parents to look far beyond the mere statistics.

Paul Champion
Strategic Project Manager

Mobile: 07540 704920

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