GUEST COLUMN: Government can’t admit education system is unfit for purpose, by Mark Cottingham, Shirebrook Academy Principal

Mark Cottingham, who begins work this term as principal of Shirebrook Academy, in Common Lane, Shirebrook.
Mark Cottingham, who begins work this term as principal of Shirebrook Academy, in Common Lane, Shirebrook.

So farewell, then, history of art and archaeology, recently scrapped from an exam board’s A Level syllabus because they’re too specialised.

Arguably, this is a result of the Department for Education’s current move towards a 1950s curriculum, which has downgraded subjects like art, music and textiles.

It’s the latest in a line of Government changes that have left the system littered with the legacy of scrapped initiatives but the biggest problem seems to be that no-one can decide what education is there for.

On one side, people say it’s there to prepare young people for employment, while others say it should school them in pure academia.

Like the heads of Dr Dolittle’s Pushmepullyou, the philosophies have taken turns to lead over the years and it’s the academic model that currently holds sway.

Currently, the Government wants every child to study the English Baccalaureate, consisting of English, maths, science, history or geography and a language, at the expense of expressive subjects and vocational subjects like electronics and catering.

This contrasts with 20 years ago, when vocational subjects were afforded equal status to GCSEs and A Levels under a diploma model.

It was a good theory, but it did not take off, because that equality was never achieved.

The scheme was dropped and academic subjects became more preferable again.

Now vocational subjects are making a return with the rise of University Technical Colleges, which pupils join after opting out of mainstream education at 14 to learn to become scientists and engineers.

Not only is this a nightmare for secondary schools like ours, who would lose pupils overnight, the curriculum, which still has no room for history or art or music, is in my view too narrow.

But it’s another sign of an inconsistent approach, which is why if I had my way I’d scrap the current education system completely. Instead, children would enter general education at seven, decide between a UTC or a mainstream secondary school at 14 to learn a better balance of vocational and academic subjects and sit a diploma exam at 18.

Over-ambitious? Maybe it is, but that’s because it requires vision, investment and the honesty to admit our current system is unfit for purpose – three things that, I don’t think, are to be found in government.