LEADER : A dunces' debate

Share
Related Topics
Five decades of debate and they still don't get it. For a month now the comment columns of the press have been stuffed with polemics denying the consequences of this country's stumbling transition to a modern higher education system. More people are passing A-levels? - they are being devalued. New universities? - just the old second-rate polys with flash logos. And this week's outrage: foundation courses for students without A-levels? - "universities for failures".

It was all inevitable. For most of the post-war period two facts sat uncomfortably alongside each other. The first was that a British university education was to a higher standard than that of most other countries. The second was that the proportion of school-leavers entering higher education in Britain was one of the smallest in the advanced world. Eventually, the decision was taken - as it had to be - in favour of a serious expansion of post-school education. The old system would have to change.

The gatekeeper to this narrow world was the A-level, with numbers allowed to pass at a high grade kept broadly in line with the restricted numbers of university places. But the democratisation of higher education (mostly engineered by Conservative governments) meant there was a choice: either to abolish the A-level in favour of a new set of qualifications, or to keep it (in name at least) and let it do a new job alongside a range of other qualifications. The government chose the latter. As a result, A- levels today are indeed "not what they were". Instead of measuring the fitness of an elite, they now bestow qualifications upon the many who want and need higher education.

It is important that any academic qualification has a knowable and consistent quality if it is to be hard currency in an ever more demanding careers market. But that should not mean that those who flunk school are out of the game. There can be no immutable chronological progression from school to college to work.

The reaction to the news of foundation courses offering flunkers a chance to obtain the start-out qualifications required to undertake a degree course has been instructive. The Daily Telegraph talks of universities "becoming remedial institutions, taking students who would previously not be considered university material". "Universities for dunces", sneers the Daily Express.

And what of our Education Secretary? She has set up an inquiry. She could see that foundation courses were a good idea for mature students, but was worried about their being provided for 18-year-olds. "It is a school's job to prepare students for university studies, not a university's," she said.

Why, Mrs Shephard, why? What rule, what imperative demands that an 18- year-old, who may have understood rather late the importance of qualifications, should not have another chance? What is to be gained by waiting until they are 28, 38 or 48?

There is, of course, no gain. It merely demonstrates the sickly nature of our national education debate, still struggling for roots between the right's nostalgic elitism and the left's inclination to deny the importance of setting, measuring and communicating standards of performance. Both positions sit smugly with one of our worst national characteristics, reflected in business as well as education, which sees failure as an absolute rather than an opportunity to rebuild and reinvent. We can, indeed we must, put this nonsense behind us.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Nurse

£40 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Nursery Nurse needed in salfordI a...

Nursery Nurse

£25 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse needed in th...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: architecture, suitcases and ‘pathetic figures’

John Rentoul
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script after James Foley beheading

Robert Fisk
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape