What sort of education should lawyers want there to be in our schools? It is the perfect time to ask this, as changes to GCSEs - specifically the introduction of the ‘English Baccalaureate’ (EBacc) in six core subjects - are in part prompted by those who purport to speak for both the professions, and the higher education institutions that feed many lawyers into the profession.
The charge, also leveled at A-levels, is that they have become too easy; that too many students get brilliant grades and therefore - faced with a sea of A*, A and B grades - no university, law school or subsequent employer, poor dears, can tell which of them are really bright. The charges go on, that coursework allows for both cheating and re-working (the latter a sort of legalised cheating).
Of course education should achieve many things other than preparation for the world of work, but let’s stick with the vocational needs arguments here. Not least, for a generation or more now each fresh change has been in large part justified by the need to listen to employers’ needs.
When Kenneth Baker was education secretary, the charge was (I simplify here) that the system produced elegant essayists who thrived on the adrenalin rush of the exam hall - and under-rewarded kids who applied themselves evenly over the course of the year, consistently outperforming those who pipped them to the post come exam-time. Project management and teamwork skills were never developed, and therefore the economy was let down.
So we come full circle. Elite bits of the professions are among those employers wrong-footed by ‘grade inflation’. But should they just go in flag-waving for the EBacc as proposed in the consultation that now follows, hoping that A-levels are next?
To answer that question, we need to look at two things. The first, of course, is what is actually going on in courses we’re all so happy to generalise about. The second area to consider is whether what’s proposed better matches what law firms and legal departments need to emerge from the education system.
Too often in public discourse it seems to me, supporters of more traditional reform options are too ready to cite the creation of less academic GCSEs (and A-levels where relevant) to support a general insistence that standards must have slipped. Put simply, in this argument the existence of a ‘food technology’ qualification becomes somehow fused with ‘grade inflation’ in traditional subjects valued in many legal careers such as English lit, history, languages.
I wonder about ‘grade inflation’ too. Consistently better grades occur year-on-year in traditional subjects. Have they got easier? Do stupid people now get As? (That is surely what’s ultimately being argued.) Are they doing better because they are being allowed to ‘cheat’ or constantly re-attempt things?
We should be wary about such conclusions. There’s a strong argument that teaching techniques have carried on improving - that whether a school is good at preparing children to gain a qualification has become less arbitrary across the board. Different things, from the old O-level, are being tested in some cases. What if current qualifications test ‘understanding’ above ‘memory’ in a subjects like history? And in maths, what if GCSE shifted the focus from a ‘knowledge-only’ approach?
Also open to challenge is the argument that grade certainty will return with the EBacc because it emphasises a single set of ‘terminal exams’. In fact, in the subjects concerned, we’ve been back there already for a couple of years with ‘controlled assessments’.
Historically the UK lagged decades behind countries like the US and Germany by clinging to the idea that the traditional ‘flair’ or genius of a fairly narrow elite would allow Britain to punch above its weight in design and industry. Meanwhile, the US opened business schools, and Germany trained engineers (Correlli Barnett is eloquent on this massive subject).
Of course, if general standards have been lifted in traditional subjects - if more pupils can do the same things - that is a headache for elite universities, and elite bits of the professions. How to engage in the crude sifting exercises of the past? Answer: you cannot.
This sifting headache should be a welcome opportunity - though often it is not being treated as such. Rather than being presented with the neat dashboard of a few candidates who made the grade, there is this bigger choice, and therefore a bigger challenge. But surely a challenge that intelligent and imaginative individuals can apply their minds to? (Unless, of course, their pre-grade-inflation education in fact wasn’t all that after all.)
If you accept that’s one large item for your in-tray, then here’s a couple more difficult items to ponder. There’s an argument that some of the skills the legal profession might want demonstrated by all staff have already been partially taken out of the school curriculum with the introduction of controlled assessments. To quote one history teacher: ‘The old coursework units were good - opportunities for independent reading and independent study, and both well-structured and open-ended at the same time, which was good for weak and very bright alike.’
Likewise, ‘too formulaic’ is a charge leveled at current sciences and languages GCSEs. Similarly a maths teacher contacted this week notes that with controlled assessments ‘all the stuff that was hard to assess went’. She continues: ‘what we've now got is effectively O-levels for all. So the idea of going from this to something more academic/dry is completely ludicrous.’
So, for professionals worried about the skills base they will have to draw on in the future, an added concern could be that not enough is up for discussion. At any rate, the link between the hardness of an exam, and the quality of education that responds to it, is at best loose.
Of course, a complicating factor in this debate is that almost anyone I know who has done okay in their professional life, myself included, is almost mawkishly sentimental about the educational route they took. They are panicked by the idea that a future version of them might have to take another route - one which they might thrive less well in.
In arguments about education that is true around my office - and it seems to be true across government too.
Education ministers seem to suffer this same tendency. For Lord Adonis, who grew up in care, that extended to the desire to create more schools like the very particular state boarding to provide more similar children with the same route ‘up’.
In one telling Newsnight Review discussion Michael Gove showed his attachment to the version of Elizabethan history he grew up believing at school. He had got an enormous amount out of it, and apparently recoiled from alternative views of the past.
We all have our biases on questions of education - I’m sure mine are clear here. But whatever outcome you would like to see, do look carefully at what is actually happening in education at the moment, what happened over the last 20 years - and what is in fact proposed this week which, despite the name, isn’t even a baccalaureate at all.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor
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