This week, the British and Spanish governments have announced controversial and somewhat retro plans to reform their secondary education systems. As well as a vintage ‘back to basics’ refocus on core subjects (maths, sciences and languages), both sets of proposals demonstrate a move towards increased selection based on ability.
In the case of the mooted English Baccalaureate, Education Secretary Michael Gove has confirmed that a consequence of the tougher new exam will be an increase in the number of students leaving school without any qualifications. In Spain, students will have to pass an exam to move up from each course, and the separation of students into academic and vocational streams will be lowered from age 16 to 14.
Education reforms are often highly contentious, because everything from the curriculum itself to the selection and examination systems used, speak to our vision of what it means to flourish as individuals and a society.
In their own way, the reforms in England and Spain touch both on the question of what happens to the least academically able, specifically, at what age they should be directed away from academic goals towards preparing them for the job market. Or, as expressed in the Spanish proposal, how to “recognize the different aptitude of students and allow them to optimize the development of their abilities.”
The problem is that, while on the surface the public discourse in both countries is about realising the differing (but equally valuable) potential of every student, the unspoken assumption is that those not following the academic route are being doomed to failure. As educational sociologist Rafael Feito has argued ,“not passing the ESO is practically equivalent to being condemned to social marginalization,” and the same could probably be said of those leaving school without any GCSEs in the UK.
This fear of being left on the scrap-heap is rooted in the lack of prestige and labour market value of vocational qualifications in both countries. There are also insufficient opportunities (and funding) for lifelong learning. You don’t feel like the doors of opportunity are being slammed shut when you’re a teenager if you know there are attractive alternative routes to success in both the short and long-term.
The other elephant in the room is social mobility. When young people from deprived backgrounds are less likely to achieve academically and are disproportionately represented in vocational education, equality of opportunity is not a reality. Unfortunately, this is not something that can be addressed by giving students and extra year or two’s grace at age 14. Research from Bristol University shows that family background and pre-school parental involvement results in marked differences in attainment at 11 and beyond. Dealing with this would require the kind of long-term social and economic strategies that are anathema to politicians who have their eyes firmly fixed on the next election.
Both England and Spain have seen repeated tinkering with the syllabus and exam system (this is the seventh major reform in Spain since the transition to democracy) because of an inability to deal with structural causes of disadvantage. What is missing in both countries is a serious debate about social mobility, and how the education system, and public policy in general, can be harnessed to ensure equality of opportunity for all.