Secondary education is too exam-focused. There is also too much specialisation too early (after GCSE), too little variety between schools and within curricula, too many reforms with every change of government, too little practical preparation for life after education, and too great a jump between school and university.
If I were secretary of state, I would actively promote the uptake of the International Baccalaureate as the standard school-leaving qualification. I would widen the pathways into teaching for people who would like to switch from other careers and for people with expertise after retirement, providing them with training on the job. I would relax some of the regulations that inhibit, or make more expensive, school trips. I would abolish “religious studies” and introduce a comprehensive compulsory course in the history of ideas, of which the mythologies, religions, philosophies and science put one another into context and are seen as successive aspects of humankind’s intellectual growth.
I would reintegrate tertiary with secondary education under the Department for Education umbrella, and encourage schools and university to be mutually porous so that there is much interchange between students and staff at both. I would make it possible for people in employment to take sabbaticals to return to education for shorter or longer periods. I would revive the old tradition of extramural education evening classes without funding being contingent on exams and certification.
I would put as much resource as possible into primary education to ensure that the basics of literacy and numeracy are secured, by recognising that different children learn best in different ways and need high levels of individual tailoring to ensure progress. Staff-student ratios would have to be
such as to facilitate this.
I would end the closed shop of higher education and, under a stringent quality assessment regime, promote diversity in provision. I would instantly abolish the current absurd restrictions on student visas because education is a UK export success story and fetishisation of anxieties about immigration to include student numbers have inhibited opportunities.
Once these reforms had been put in place I would give the education sector time to catch its breath and settle down without incessant change and re-regulation: which means that I would leave my ministerial desk and go back into education myself as a student to learn something new.
AC Grayling is author of The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times (Bloomsbury, 2015)