Streaming into the future

Academic, technical and vocational streaming in secondary schools would allow children to study courses that are appropriate to their needs and talents.
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The Independent Online
We have a new government and a new education minister but, despite education having been a key concern for the politicians and electorate over the past two months, we are still left with severe problems in our schools and an ever increasing tail of underachievers.

If I have understood its policies correctly, the new government is not concerned about structures, only about standards. However, it must be obvious to most of us that the structure of the school system has an important influence on standards. Why else do prominent government ministers send their children to grant maintained or even independent schools? They rightly anticipate that their offspring will obtain a better education there than in their local comprehensive.

Surely this "better" education should be available to all children! So I would like to offer some advice, based mainly on my educational experiences but also as a parent and now grandparent, on how to achieve this. In the long run I can see only one sensible, realistic policy and that is a return to strict catchment areas. Of course, for parents to accept this would require a vast improvement in standards, not in the high-performing schools but in the under-performing schools. Recent policy is for successful schools to have even more money thrown at them. It is the weakest, poorly performing (and consequently poorly funded) schools that need levelling up by investment - not only financial, but also in more general ways such as the provision of replacement staff.

If we could raise the standards of our weakest schools, then there would be a possibility of returning to the norm of sending children to their local school. Of course, in order to provide every child with the opportunity for a first-class education, we do need to offer more variety - but why not offer this variety inside the school instead of encouraging competition among schools? I would, for example, favour a system of streaming, not just by subjects but, from the age of 14 years, into different faculties, for example Academic, Technical and Vocational routes. Schools could offer all three faculties and there could be possible early entry to the Academic faculty.

This would need regional planning both for improving the weakest schools and for deciding on the catchment areas. There could also be parental choice on which faculty would be best for their child after school advice is given, but this choice would be made on the understanding that their child would have to cope with the work in the chosen faculty or be transferred to another faculty. We would also need to enhance the status of the Technical and Vocational faculties, which should not be seen as failed Academic routes (essentially what low-grade GCSE assessment currently does) but as important routes in their own right. In fact, the available money for resources, particularly IT, should be targeted at these routes rather than at the Academic route.

The Technical route would lead to semi-academic qualifications, leading on to practical degree courses in Higher Education. These pupils should be given the opportunity to experience the practical aspects of technology within the school. The Vocational route would involve a planned combination of extensive work experience (requiring the co-operation of local business) together with practical school-based courses. Some of the work experience could be offered in the school itself, with students taking responsibility for cooking, decorating, gardening, portering etc, under the supervision of a tutor.

By the age of 14 years, most pupils know which route they should be taking and, provided there is possible transfer across faculties built into the framework, pupils' options and opportunities would not be closed down, but rather they would have courses and training appropriate to their needs and talents. The national curriculum framework ensures that non-academic pupils are left trying to cope with the lower levels of an academic syllabus - it is a waste of their time, and indeed the teachers' time, and it is no wonder that there is ever-increasing disaffection and under-achievement in schools today.

The aim should be that, within the life-time of this parliament, all schools should be brought up to a common standard of excellence so that parents do not need to seek out a preferred school in some neighbouring area but would be happy to send their children to the local school, confident that they would receive a good education suited to their talents, potential and interests.

Competition and confrontation seem to dominate the current thinking in education in both major parties - but high-quality education should be a right for all children, without parents having to fight for it or pay for it. We need local co-operation and collaboration, with everyone pulling in the same direction. Only then will we provide an education fit for the 21st century for our children and grandchildrenn

The writer is Professor of Education at the University of Exeter