Sunday, May 20, 2007

Burning our Money on Secondary Moderns

The LSE Library is, indeed, excellent. Wat Tyler has been searching through it for evidence on just why Secondary Moderns went as wrong as they did. What he has uncovered is that they were very poorly funded. If a grammar school system were to be revived today it seems unlikely that particular mistake would be repeated and that does suggest Secondary Moderns might fulfill their proper function. They might really prepare less academic students for practical careers.

I have a lot of conversations with a teacher friend in a hard, comprehensive, school. Those conversations confirm what we've read in Frank Chalk's book. That many children and parents utterly resent the education their children are expected to undertake. They resent it so much that they destroy teacher morale and the possibility of other children learning and waste vast amounts of expensive time in education.

Even those children for whom a higher education is probably not appropriate do need some academic training. They need to learn how to read and write at a basic level. They need to become somewhat numerate to function in the modern world. However, attempting to focus almost all of their attention on academic study for most of their youth is too much. Asked to study all day they become easily distracted and restless. If they were to spend most of their time acquiring practical skills they might be not only better engaged with their education in general but actually pay attention in the smaller periods they are required to study academic subjects. We would increase the productivity of their academic education by reducing the time spent on it. This effect could easily be sufficient to create a net improvement in the academic standards of the worst off at the same time as increasing their training in practical skills.

If the benefits of education become less esoteric parents might do more to help schools out. A parent from a non-academic background is unlikely to have much time for formal academic education but most have direct experience of the importance of having, or not having, skills. If this caused parents to become more supportive of education it could have a transformative effect on educational outcomes among the worst off. It also explains how secondary moderns might come to exist, with equal funding unlike in the old days, under a framework of parental choice.

Now, the case for allowing separate schools rather than streaming: It would seem that in a single school academic achievement will always push out practical skills as the main objective. Academic skills are the hallmark of the higher social strata in wider society. That means that the leadership both within a mixed ability school and the political leadership will be biased towards placing a higher value on academic achievement. It was what got them where they are. This means that schools will be judged by the criteria of whether they succeed academically. Practical skills will not be given the attention they deserve. A separate school might allow those teachers and pupils who see great benefits in a practical education to develop their own sense of pride in practical achievements and not be seen through the prism of how well they do academically.

If right-wingers want to argue successfully for giving schools the freedom to select by academic ability they need to do more than cite the benefits of grammar schools for bright children. It seems probable that you can get most of the benefits ascribed to grammar schools if you just stream every subject. It is rather counterintuitive to argue that poor educational performance somehow leaks through the walls. Arguments for grammar schools also suffer in the face of the 'worst-off test' that is applied by the current Conservative front bench. Grammars might help a small number of bright poor people escape the fate they face at the moment but Cameron's challenge for an educational policy is that it attempt to serve the interests of all students.

Instead of making the case for grammar schools yet again the right need to start making the case for secondary moderns. These schools might properly focus students time on skills that will be of use to them in later life and develop their own sense of pride in the development of hardworking and productive young people. In one of reality TV's few redeeming moments this was what was seen when underperforming students were given the chance at an old secondary modern education. Choice in education could give that chance to a vast number of young people we are currently letting down.


Vino S said...

Interesting figures. I always suspected secondary moderns were underfunded, but am surprised to hear they only got one-third of the funding of grammar schools.

It is always amusing (to me) to hear right-wingers go on about bringing back grammar schools since, by implication, that means bringing back secondary moderns [which no one ever says]. If we are to have a 'two-tier' system then, given that perhaps 80% of kids will actually be going to the secondary moderns, i would be interested to hear what you think those schools should be like and what they should teach.

The idea of teaching people vocational skills at school sounds attractive, but i wonder to what degree someone's schooling between 11 to 16 can actually give them vocational skills that will still be needed in the labour market 50 yrs later. The very fast-changing nature of modern society means that, for example, teaching lots of kids woodwork might not be a productive use of their time - if there is not a demand for carpentry -related skills.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that in the long run the element of choice becomes illusionary. If it operates by streaming, inevitably poor initial academic performance for a child is equated to a 'suitability' for vocational education, an assumption which is invalid given children develop at different rates and their priorities tend to change as they grow older. Streaming results then becomes a high barrier that persists throughout the person's life and stereotypes people into categories which may or may not fit their aspirations or inclinations.

Even if it isn't done by official streaming but by pure choice (by just having well funded alternative vocational schools as you seem to imply), the market place will still operate such that people with reasonably good initial academic performance will go to grammar schools and people with poor results will have a tendency to be forced to go to vocational schools. In essence, the same thing as streaming.

The problem is more pernicious when one considers the correlation between initial academic performance and quality of early education, which depends in large on wealth.

Certainly these problems do not rule out the value of having well funded vocational institutes, but it is difficult to see how they can be avoided or mitigated if it were adopted as a 2 tiered education system, esp given that shifting between a vocational school to a 'normal' school can be extremely difficult due to the different emphasis.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Vino, that sort of stuff will update with training. The basic skills will give them a good start. Unused academic skills go out of date too...


Good comment. This was certainly a key justification of the comprehensive system. I'm grateful for the chance to respond to it.

By using a comprehensive system you're not avoiding a decision on whether a child is suited to academic education or not. You're deciding that all children should have an academic education. This leads to a lot of people getting the wrong education. We can see the consequences of this in the experience of so many students utterly failed by the system.

You can't fudge and teach both vocational and academic skills for the reasons I discuss above (vocational education gets edged out) plus just because that means you don't do either properly. Sure, kids mature at different ages but why are we tailoring our education system to the slowest to develop?

Surely the challenge is to create a system with as much flexibility to identify late bloomers as possible rather than forcing everyone else to spend so long getting their educations ruined thanks to innapropriate amount of academic or non-academic education?

james higham said...

Asked to study all day they become easily distracted and restless.

They do here too but the system doesn't allow them to indulge in this. They work 37 lessons a week in upper secondary, then the homework.

And if the homework is not done, there's hell to pay. The difference is in the system and the teachers since the 1970s and, as you point out, the expectations of parents are so much lower now.

Russia hasn't learnt to catch up with Britain in this respect - yet.

Alsoknownas said...

In addition to funding is the problem that most teachers would prefer to work with intelligent, well motivated and well behaved students. Consequently, the best teachers will end up in the grammar schools and the secondary moderns will get the rest.

There will be a few exceptions-those with a strong sense of social justice or interest in vocational teaching, for instance-but in general the secondary moderns will be home to poor students and bad teachers. said...

This will not succeed in fact, that's what I suppose.