Why do education correspondents in the national press seem so quick to suspend critical judgment when it comes to stories about further education?
Take the latest parlous reporting on the recent Jobcentre-linked scheme to provide workbased learning students with skills for employment. Wherever you look, from the Independent and BBC News online to the TES, the story is the same: colleges that should be helping unemployed people into work are failing to put them on the right courses or are too obsessed with exams.
The claim is apparently substantiated by Ofsted’s leaning and skills director Matthew Coffey and the 1 million plus youth unemployment rates are cited in support of inspection evidence.
A gracious interpretation might be to say the journalists are simply overstretched as profit chasing bosses slash editorial spending. The TES for example has gone from three full-time reporters to two part timers in less than four years, and the Independent has suffered similarly.
But do they really have so little time that they can’t even spare a moment to make decent contacts who could inform them of the full facts and, occasionally, even put them right? For a typical example, see the Independent’s take on the story at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/colleges-are-not-leading-to-work-warn-inspectors-7938127.html.
None of the reports make clear that the report is not about FE in general but one specific programme set up last August, where colleges were a minority of the institutions inspected (17 out of 45). Also, as Policy consortium member Mick Fletcher points out, “there is quite a bit of good news hidden at the back of the report but not in the summary or press release.”
He says: “The contribution made by all providers is better than the headline figures suggest since they include people who have only just finished the course and begun to look for work. Also, they ignore those who are probably in work but can’t be contacted.
“In the context of high and rising unemployment high success rates are not to be expected. The fact that only 27% of those on courses designed with and for employers who were seeking to recruit got a job shows the true scale of the challenge.”
Fletcher also expresses concern that there is dishonest use of figures throughout the news coverage. “Ofsted interviewed 75 trainees and subsequently re-interviewed 41 of whom 15 were in employment. They represent this as one fifth of the original 75 which is dishonest: it is actually 37%, almost twice as high as asserted.
“Much of the report consists of the usual sloppy Ofsted formulation along the lines of ‘characteristics of the particularly effective provision included…’ This is not backed up with a clear definition of how effectiveness is defined or any analysis of the extent to which the characteristic described was present or absent in the effective and ineffective groups.
Good journalism challenges such assumptions in reports, so why again is there such an overwhelming lack of any basic questioning by the journalists? Why didn’t they ask the basic question: “Does the evidence stand up?”
For Andrew Morris, another Policy Consortium member, two points that stick out. First, the idea that “Colleges are failing to put jobseekers on courses.” This reflects a very common perception that colleges ‘put’ people on courses. It fails to recognise the preferences that individuals and maybe their parents have. How would the reporter respond if you turned it round and the college dictated that “your daughter cannot do a media course, she has to do electrical installation”?
The second point causing concern is that too many programmes focused on the achievement of qualifications. “Yes – that is what they have been told to do consistently by governments, inspectorates, awarding bodies, Qualification Authorities, employer representative bodies for decades,” says Morris.
So, overall, the misreporting or parroting of old saws merely serves to reinforce in the minds of readers the string of prejudices that prevent colleges getting the real message over and building their reputation. In the process, it does the reputations of the journalists no good whatsoever.
Educational standards are seldom out of the news – usually in the form of a tirade about how they in sorry decline. And the message is always the same: “The rot set in during the swinging sixties and can only be remedied by a government with the backbone to get tough with trendy teachers.”
The latest panacea solutions are tougher A levels and differential pay rates (for which read docking the pay of bad teachers). In fairness to the media, these particular hares were set running by the Government. Less forgivable, though, are the unquestioned assumptions apparent in most of the coverage concerning the potential impact on standards of these two initiatives.
In the case of A levels, we have Ofqual’s word for it that there has been significant “grade inflation” over recent years. There are also authoritative voices amongst university admissions tutors worried about increasing proportions of entrants who arrive ill-equipped to handle some of the intrinsic demands of a degree-level course.
However, of itself increasing the rigour of assessment at A level will not improve standards of attainment. Indeed, in the short-term, the year-on-year attainment profile at 18 would no doubt show a deterioration. If failure rates rose significantly, this would pose a question about the sense of some pupils spending two years working towards a qualification that they had little chance of obtaining. Which in turn would raise issues about the programmes of study that might be followed instead – ironically so, give the media’s apparently negative opinions of standards in the vocational alternatives. There would, presumably, also be smaller proportions entering university, with knock-on effects on the viability of some existing HE provision, to say nothing of how and to where those students affected would progress in future. These factors do not invalidate plans to make A levels tougher, but they should not be ignored as they were in most of the coverage.
Reporting also tended to make the assumption that grade inflation at A level is synonymous with a general decline in standards of educational attainment at 18. But it is, of course, quite possible both that A levels are easier than they used to be and that general educational standards have improved. Indeed, the evidence available suggests that this is almost certainly the case.
By way of illustration, let me quote the performance of my own alma mater, a direct-grant boys grammar school in Lancashirewith an intake at 11 of approximately 100 pupils, all of whom were well within the top 10% of the attainment range within its catchment area. In 1965, the year in which I left to go to university, 42 boys were entered for A level, with a pass rate against subjects taken of 70% – an attainment profile which the school magazine notes as comparing “not unfavourably with past years”. Thirty-eight of us proceeded to higher education. In the same year the average number of subjects per pupil passed at O level (broadly equivalent to A*-C grades at GCSE) was 4.5. At the same school today almost all those who enter at 11 go on to take A levels, and the pass rate is nigh-on 100%, which – given the attainment range of the intake – is what one might expect. It is beyond belief that the discrepancy between now and then can be accounted for solely by A levels getting easier. If this was the case, A levels today would have to be easier than O levels were then – and I doubt even the most rabid media sceptic believes that to be true.
One further point concerning A levels. The BBC Radio 4 Today programme quoted fears that “they are no longer preparing young people adequately for the workplace”. Given that they are in effect a university entrance qualification, A levels are not, and were never, designed to do the former. There are programmes that fulfil this purpose. They are called Apprenticeships. If the media believe that more people should follow the latter route rather than A levels, perhaps they should say so more clearly? And if so, why should those directed towards Apprenticeships be restricted to the average and lower attainment ranges?
Where teachers’ pay is concerned, it is far less apparent why paying bad teachers less should help to improve educational standards. Even under the most minimal employment protection rights, there are practical considerations of imposing adverse conditions of service on the profession. And even if we accept the media’s apparent belief that the teaching profession has particular problems concerning competence, there are two obvious questions not explored in most of the coverage of this story. First, if bad teachers were always bad, how and why were they allowed to enter the profession? And second, if they were competent on entry, how and why were they allowed to become incompetent?
Amongst the more obvious possible solutions are first to have a more rigorous selection and probationary process for teachers entering the profession, and second a more effective system of in-service appraisal, linked to individually tailored continuous professional development.
Of course, other things being equal, these reforms would imply higher starting salaries for teachers, and more expenditure on in-service training. And the most practicable means of introducing differential pay would no doubt be via paying excellent teachers more than by trying to cut the pay of those deemed not up to it.
But these things don’t sit easily with a commitment to deficit-reduction, which is perhaps the kindest explanation for the level of support for this particular latest panacea.
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