There is something amiss with both Left and Right-wing approaches to school education.
England’s Left, represented by Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children School and Families has claimed victory in its 10 year battle to close the gap between students attending state and private schools on the basis that the number of schools where students are underperforming in exams has decreased.
Michael Gove, the Shadow Secretary, argues that the results have been inflated by Labour’s inclusion of dumbed down subjects such as basic literacy and numeracy in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). Gove's policy recommends weighting subjects by intellectual rigour, excluding vocational qualifications or 'diplomas' from school league tables and teaching an academic curriculum until the age of 16, after which students could select vocational training as desired.
The Australian Labor Government, like its Conservative predecessor, has established vocational schooling as a mainstay of its education policy, ostensibly to address skills shortages and improve Year 12 retention. In its 2009 report 'Trade Training Centres in Schools Program', priority funding was earmarked for ‘secondary school communities with Indigenous students, and students from rural, regional or other disadvantaged communities’ (DEEWR, 2009: 2). This confirms intuitive reasoning that the Centres are designed principally for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and, depending on viewpoint, may give weight to the British Conservatives’ claims that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are over-represented in vocational education.
If students are encouraged into vocational education (and out of more academic streams) from a young age and these students are primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds and in state schools, is that a cause for concern, or is increasing their school retention enough to warrant a declaration of victory from the Left? We know in Australia that employment security and wages over the lifetime improve with more academic qualifications, but are they reasonable benchmarks for education?
At a collective level, are Progressives getting the balance right between improving the educational performance of disadvantaged students in school and beyond while offering them an education that will transform the obdurate inequalities that characterise educational systems and economies in most countries?
With speechwriting skills that rival Ed Miliband’s, Gove has lamented, 'In our national science tests we ask 14 year olds. "Which part of a rider's anatomy does a riding hat protect?" In our Science GCSEs we ask 16 year olds. "Do we look at the stars through a microscope, a xylophone, a synthesiser or a telescope". You can get a good pass mark in these exams with only a third of the answers correct. No wonder our top universities now say they have to run remedial courses for freshers because after thirteen years in school students still don't know enough to embark on science courses which students from other countries take in their stride. How can a government which calls itself progressive have presided over such a tragic situation?' (Gove, 2008, Freeing schools to help the most disadvantaged).