Confessions of a Political Animal

October 6, 2008

First Prize in Elitism

At last the Dodo said, `EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.’ 

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

‘The election of a Conservative government will bring – and I mean this almost literally – a declaration of war against those parts of the educational establishment who still cling to the cruelty of the “all must win prizes” philosophy and the dangerous practice of dumbing down.’

David Cameron, Party conference speech, 2008

Of all the lines of David Cameron’s conference speech, few got quite as guttural a roar of approval from the party faithful than that quoted above. There can be little doubt that the inclusion of an out-and-out attack on something called the ‘all must win prizes’ culture in education was chosen by Cameron’s speech writers because of its ability to sound like a much more innocent statement than it really is – and because party activists crying out for a more traditional Conservatism would understand exactly what he meant.

Those of us outside Tory circles and who are not frequent readers of the more reactionary sections of the national press might see Cameron’s statement as little more than a relatively harmless assault on the inclusion of non-competitive sports and the like in school curricula. Alas, the Tory leader is making a much broader reference and in doing so is signalling that a Conservative government will instigate a radical step backwards in education policy.

Let us be clear what ‘all must win prizes’ is code for in the tabloid-reading world that Mr Cameron’s remark was firmly aimed at. The prizes in question are increasing pass rates at A-level and GCSE, the introduction of a wider range of educational qualifications, including vocational qualifications, and the opening up of higher education to wider participation. It should come as no surprise that Cameron’s speech was bracketed by two pronouncements by Tory politicians that tie in exactly with an opposition to this agenda: firstly, statements from shadow Schools Secretary David Willetts that an incoming Conservative government would probably abandon academic diplomas and secondly, the defence by Oxford Chancellor Chris Pattenof social elitism at Oxbridge and his demand for a removal of the cap on tuition fees, following in the steps of similar statements from other Oxbridge spokespeople, discussed here before.

Just as with ‘political correctness’ and ‘dumbing down’, the right is setting about building up a narrative around isolated media scare stories to create support for a broader agenda of rolling back attempts to deliver equality of opportunity. Because despite the implications of a ‘prizes for all’ culture which seeks to create equality of outcome, the educational initiatives and policies which are genuinely under attack are those that recognise that young people are not starting from a level playing field or that a one-size fits all approach to learning and qualification is not desirable or effective in a modern society.

Like clockwork, these straw men of ‘prizes-for-all’ and ‘dumbing down’ are built up each year when the A-level and GCSE results are released, showing that the proportion of passes and high grades have risen. Invariably, this is greeted by a predictable stream of comments about declining standards and exams being marked to meet political targets. You will have to look hard to find any Conservative spokesperson demurring from these sentiments. The unspoken reality is that the coincidence of a number of factors coming together in the last couple of decades mean that anything other than rising achievement levels (at least on the basis of the blunt instrument of examination results) would be very surprising: firstly, improved teaching standards, at least in part due to the professionalisation of the teaching profession (it is now all but impossible to become a secondary school teacher without a degree); secondly, the availability of a wider range of subjects at both GCSE and A-level, which means that more students are likely to be studying subjects that enthuse them and for which they have aptitude; thirdly, the increased diversity of assessment methods, including coursework elements, meaning less disadvantage for those whose exam-hall performance does not accurately reflect their abilities; fourthly, the greater range of alternative qualifications available to the traditional route, particularly at post-16, means that students for whom this is not the appropriate route are not shoehorned into one-size fits all qualifications; fifthly, and more negatively, the unspoken pressure on a school or FE institution to achieve a high league table ranking makes teachers more reluctant to enter borderline pass/fail students for exams.

Of course, none of these factors is so much as mentioned when the country descends into its annual moral panic about ‘easy’ exams, yet this supposed decline in standards is at the heart of the ‘all must have prizes’ claim. The simplistic criticism of exam results – more people are passing, ergo exams must be easier – belies the real agenda of those who jump on this bandwagon – a return to the days when the exam system was aimed at providing an intellectual elite, tested on a very small range of traditional subjects. I have seen such a system described as ‘Olympian’, which is a complete misnomer: it resembles an Olympic Games which has had all sports except the track events removed because the other disciplines are ‘dumbed down’. The so-called ‘all must have prizes’ culture is of course nothing of the kind – it is merely a recognition that different runners need different races.

Now, I am not going to claim that the Conservative Party does not understand this. After all, vocational BTEC qualifications as an alternative to GCSEs were introduced under the previous Tory administration. However, what they do seem dead set against is any situation where vocational qualifications are considered to have parity with the so-called ‘gold standard’ academic qualifications.

This is clearly demonstrated by the statements from Mr Willetts, mentioned earlier, that an incoming Conservative government will abandon the three academic 14-19 diplomas (in humanities, languages and science), which are designed to fit neatly alongside study for one of the 14 vocational diplomas. The BBC reports Mr Willetts as saying:

The reason why the government is pressing ahead with these extra [i.e. academic]Diplomas is that they conceive the Diplomas as an alternative to A-levels and they wish to subvert them

whilst also saying in relation to vocational diplomas that

I’d like very much to see them succeed.

Seemingly obsessed with a conspiracy theory that Labour is seeking to in some way ‘dumb down’ the gold standard of the A-level, Willetts is effectively demanding that, at the age of 14, all students must choose between the academic and vocational routes and that any mixing of disciplines will not be tolerated. Or in other words, Willetts’ message to the young people of Britain: ‘know your place’. We should presumably welcome the fact that the Tories have accepted that it is wrong to classify children as academic ‘goats’ or vocational ‘sheep’ at age 11 (not includingthe Tories in Kent, Bromley, Bexley, Buckinghamshire, Trafford etc.), but I’m not sure that shifting the age of final classification three years down the road to 14 is worthy of that much celebration. Nor is the fact that the Conservatives remain so wedded to the baseless principle that the provision of academic qualifications through any route other than the rigid A-level syllabus somehow devalues this latter exam. In terms of educational qualifications, it isn’t ‘prizes for all’ that the Tories really object to, it is giving everyone the opportunity to even compete for a prize.

And the same holds for HE admissions. For those of us who believe that HE should not be an elite pursuit, the prize that we want all to have is not the automatic right of admission to university, but simply that all should have the right to compete on an equal footing, with their economic and social background taken into account when their academic achievements are considered, and with as many financial and societal barriers as possible removed. Yet there are siren voices within the Conservative movement who clearly seek to row back on moves in this direction and who are working to equate widening access with a decline in academic standards. As Universities Secretary of State John Denham rightly said about Oxford Chancellor Chris Patten after his recent outburst, he and others of his ilk are members of the

more means worse brigade.

Whilst the Conservative Party is at least in theory now in favour of widening participation in HE, their policy remains muddled at least, with Michael Gove saying in August that

More and more people going to university is an unalloyed good thing.

However, just months later, Shadow Minister for Vocational Education John Hayes MP was back on the traditional track, accusing the government of having

a myopic obsession on admissions

and assuring Conservative conference delegates that

interfering with admissions is not central to the Conservative agenda.

There is evidently, at this stage, still a major battle to come within the Conservative Party as to HE admissions, with a lot of their policy remaining up in the air – there is no firm word yet, for example, as to whether they will repeat their 2005 manifesto pledge to abolish the Office of Fair Access, which has the power to prevent universities raising fees unless they meet requirements on broadening admission. Nor is there any word as to the party’s position on the review of the cap on top-up fees that is due in 2010. Until recently I had thought that Cameron was on the side of the angels on this – Gove’s comments on dropping opposition to expansion of HE were thought to be issued with the leader’s blessing. But Cameron’s ridiculous return to the world of Daily Mail politics with his petty prejudice-laden speech suggest that this might not be the case, in either HE or secondary education. If this is a genuine policy shift, those who care about access to education and equality of opportunity must hope that David Cameron never does obtain the ultimate prize.

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