Funny how radical propositions can be so old-fashioned when you peel back the rhetorical packaging and peer inside. There has been a hoo-hah recently about Michael Gove’s proposals to reform A-level examinations and to allow Universities to have a greater say in designing the courses and (to wheel out what has been the headline grabber) set the examination papers. It’s caused quite a media flurry and a rustling of newspaper editorial pages in staff rooms – partly, no doubt, because any change to the education system inevitably triggers a similar outburst.

Yet, as many commentators have pointed out (including Channel 4 News), universities – or examination boards very closely linked to them – did just that within living memory. It’s entirely possible that you can believe that there is a ‘return to a Golden Era’ agenda here, albeit not one as blatantly voiced as the Education Secretary’s view that children should learn Byron, Dickens, Hardy and other traditional greats from the literary canyon alongside ‘island history’. (Modesty aside, a few people have subsequently thrown some fine sentences together and are worth a read.) And it helps to remember that Mr Gove is a politician: alongside his aspirations for the education system sits a requirement to play to that part of the electorate most eager to see his party win a future Parliamentary majority.

Having worked for the long-since departed Secondary Examinations Council and School Curriculum Development Committee, and for two Universities (where I spent many long afternoons in examination board meetings), I have a different qualm. I wonder if we’re focusing too heavily on the what (curriculum content), the who (whose voices get how much say in determining syllabi and exam questions) and the how (although modularised courses and a ‘re-sit’ culture do have unintended impacts that need to be reviewed) and are forgetting the why.

Mervyn Dinnen was quick to tweet as the ‘story’ broke, pointing out that a very large number of A level students leave formal education once they’ve completed them: seeing them simply as a preparation for University is perhaps to stand too close to the bigger picture. Indeed, the comments from the dons themselves in terms of what is ‘lacking’ in current first-year intakes suggest that the current system could be revised to everyone’s benefit. An Ofqual report highlights a number of ‘failings’, which include:

… researching, finding sources, essay-writing and referencing, and the wider skills of problem-solving, analysis and critical thinking”

These are broadly skills of application and independent pro-active involvement, of learning rather than of being taught. Having completed my own education some decades ago, and left the formal education sector as an employee in the mid-1990s, these don’t strike me simply as skills required for academic success: these are skills for working and living too. A wide range of commentators over the last few weeks seem in broad agreement that the problem does not lie simply in the curriculum or the exam questions, but in that troublesome bigger picture. As Mary Beard, a Cambridge Professor in Classics, commented in the Times Literary Supplement:

The point is that you can have as challenging a curriculum as you like, but if you have a vicious struggle for league table supremacy and not enough resources in the system . . . any teacher ambitious for their school and their students (who need A*s to get to the university of their choice) will find some way of maximising their chances (it’s the intellectual equivalent of tax avoidance….)”

There’s a lesson from organisational development and behavioural sciences that might bear repeating here: that you tend to get what you reward. Stern declarations from Secretaries of State may play well to those who prefer sticks, but the surreptitious power of carrots may be greater in practice. (One wonders how closely Mr Gove has been involved in the government’s policy review activities drawing on Sunstein and Thaler’s ‘Nudge’). Like some demented version of Super Mario, schools are currently rewarded for getting as many students as possible over examination hurdles so that they can step up to the next level. It’s a point not lost on many education journalists and practitioners. Mike Baker, writing for the Guardian and similarly identifying the current system as a ‘narrow race for grades’, sees a potential problem opening up if the proposals are acted upon:

In the current climate, academics’ promotion prospects – and the financial health of their departments – depend primarily on the amount and quality of their published research. Teaching undergraduates comes second. That leaves involvement in A-level design trailing a distant third.”

Dr Martin Stephen, former High Master of St Paul’s, recognises the issue too, suggesting that academics be rewarded in additional research funding for involvement in A-level marking, driving up levels of rigour while supporting Universities (although, unlike Baker, he doesn’t ponder whose budget this funding will be transferred from.) But Dr Stephen’s final point shows us that bigger picture from another perspective, reminding us that education has a ‘why’ as well as a ‘how much’ and that both need answering:

Just as it’s plain daft not to have the end–users of academic exams (universities) dictate their content, so it’s double-daft not to have employers do the same for Britain’s terminally ill vocational qualifications.”

Having long been averse to sentences that start with “It’s all about …”, I’m more glad to acknowledge that education is about many, many things. One of my favourite lines of poetry comes from Louis MacNeice’ Snow, when he writes that “World is crazier and more of it than we think, Incorrigibly plural.” But education is unavoidably about the future – both of the individuals undertaking it and the world they will inhabit and help to shape – and about helping to prepare the coming generations for what can only be partly known or foreseen.

Just as OD and performance management can teach us that how we reward can shape behaviours (indeed, ‘Nudge’ theory would be rather lost without this concept), so leadership development can teach us that good habits and applicable skills can stand us in good stead. Even the brightest of us complete our university studies at some point: even those who go on to teach are joining part of the broader economy.

Education is preparation for life: for most of us, that means a life of work of some kind. The skills of independent action, research, analysis and of finding solutions will be central no matter what we do if we are to be valued. As Sharlyn Lauby points out at her HR Bartender blog, our current conversation about finding or creating sufficient jobs will at some point become ‘a skills issue’ – having the people for the jobs that the economy can (we all hope) generate. As our world seemingly spins ever faster, we have lost not just jobs for life but many ‘skills for life’ too. It’s not impossible that the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ classroom is heading for the same historic graveyard as countless occupations and professions.

As she concludes:

The business and education communities will need to work together to make sure the skills needed for a person to enter the workforce are being taught in school.

None of us can afford to sit on the sidelines. Bridging the skills gap will take a collaborative effort. We need to plan for it today.”

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