I’m approaching thirty. “Tick Tock”, a younger friend keeps reminding me, helpfully. It’s far too young to be Prime Minister, of course. But there are new and serious expectations for a thirtysomething: marriage, kids, buying a house. Being a grown up, basically.
This is geeky, I know, but thirty is also a key age researchers use when examining longitudinal data to measure your social mobility; basically, to see if you’re doing better in life than your dad when he was your age. Very unlikely. Can I stay in my twenties, please?
My friends are getting twitchy about it too. All of us, no matter our age, are prone to this age consciousness; we feel the social pressure to accomplish certain life goals by a certain time. But life does not follow a linear upward trajectory. Many of us experience disruption or difficulty in our relationships, careers or finances. Life is a meandering road, not a straight one.
Similarly, children do not develop – cognitively or socially – at the same rate. Yet we maintain an education system where children progress through school on the basis of their age rather than their ability. This is madness: it means nearly a third of sixteen year olds do not get 5 A*-Cs at GCSE, the minimum academic attainment which is expected from government and, most importantly, employers. We are letting thousands of young people leave our education system without gaining the passport that is needed to access and thrive in mainstream society.
Many children move into the next stage of their schooling, to a more challenging curriculum, without mastering the basics of the prior stage. At the end of primary school, children are expected to be working to at least Level 4 or above in their Key State 2 SATs in reading, writing and mathematics. Last year, 21% of 11 year olds did not achieve this, but yet they still went to secondary school to study Key Stage 3 the next year.
Election Analysis: The Key Voters
Election Analysis: The Key Voters
1/6 Settled Silvers
These are the comfortably-off over-60s, still in work or drawing a decent pension – or both – who are enjoying their entitlements such as the Winter Fuel Allowance, free bus passes and free TV licence. They are worried about immigration and Europe. Both the Conservatives – who are pledging to keep benefits for wealthier pensioners – and Ukip want their votes
2/6 Squeezed Semis
Slightly older than the Harassed Hipsters, they are the second key group for Labour’s family-focused election strategy. They are married couples on low to middle incomes who own unpretentious semi-detached homes in suburban areas. In 2001, these were the Pebbledash People sought by the Conservatives. Now the pebbledash is gone and a modest conservatory has been built at the back
3/6 Aldi Woman
In 1997 and 2001 she was Worcester Woman – a middle-class Middle Englander shopping at Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. Today, the age of austerity means she still goes to Waitrose for her basic food shop but cannily switches to Aldi for her luxury bargains such as Parma ham and prosecco. Identified by Caroline Flint, she is a key target of both Labour and the Conservatives
4/6 Glass Ceiling Woman
In her thirties or forties, she has an established career under her belt, perhaps in the “marzipan layer” – one position below the still male-dominated senior executive level. She is now, according to Nick Clegg, forced into making the “heart-breaking choice” between staying at home to bring up her children and going to work and forking out for high-cost, round-the-clock childcare
5/6 Harassed Hipsters
One of the two key groups identified by Labour as crucial to hand Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street. Well-paid professional couples, often with children, they live in diverse urban and metropolitan areas rather than the suburbs. More comfortably off than most swing voters, they are time poor – struggling to balance raising a young family with busy work schedules
These are mainly first-time voters, though some are in their twenties – students and digital-age generation renters helping to fuel the “Green Surge”. Idealists, but with no tribal loyalty to any party, they are anti-austerity, middle class, living in urban areas. Despite studying at university or recently graduated, they are struggling to find decent jobs and want cheaper housing and a higher minimum wage
If children will not or do not get the expected minimum in their tests by the end of each relevant Key Stage, they should not progress to the next Key Stage. This will mean the normalisation of mixed-aged classrooms. They will, of course, be tricky to administer, and difficult at first to gain the support of sensitive parents and children. But the existing evidence – though it needs further development - suggests mixed-age classrooms are associated with significant improvements in attainment and attitudes towards schools for some children, especially those from low socio-economic backgrounds.
This country ought to have almost every child leaving school with the minimum expected attainment at GCSE level, even if it takes a year or two years longer to achieve. This is demanding, but a profoundly positive view of human nature: that all children are capable of - and deserve – a high-quality academic education. It is why the underlying philosophy of the grammar school system, that only a proportion of students should and can take the academic route, is too unambitious for our children and teachers.
In fact, right from the start, there are children who are not yet prepared for infant school. According to the Bercow Report, roughly one in fourteen children start school with serious speech, communication and language needs. Children need strong foundations to be equipped for the long school years ahead. High-quality, pre-school education has been proven to enhance the long-term educational development of children, especially those from more deprived backgrounds.
Currently, all three and four year olds – and the most deprived two year olds – are entitled to fifteen free hours of pre-school education a week in a quality setting. This Early Years Free Entitlement has very high take-up, but low-income families and certain ethnic minority groups are less likely to take advantage of the scheme.
Really, 100 per cent of children should be accessing this Free Entitlement. Attending pre-school should be judged just the same as taking your child to school, especially as it’s just as important, if not more, for children’s development. Even if parents are, admirably, looking after children full-time at home, they should be expected to take their children to pre-school education, viewing the Free Entitlement as an education rather than childcare service. It may be necessary to make the receipt of certain benefits – such as Child Benefit – conditional upon accessing the Free Entitlement.
So if I were Prime Minister, I’d make sure all children attended pre-school education and only left the school system once they had achieved the minimum expected grades at GCSE.
Ryan Shorthouse is the Founder and Chief Executive of Bright BlueReuse content