An Interview with Kenneth Spours and Ann Hodgson: A Universal Upper Secondary Education System? Viable? Feasible?

Jul 3, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) I understand you have just given a major lecture at the Institute of Education, University of London. What was your topic?

Towards a universal upper secondary education system in England: A unified and eco-system vision

In our joint inaugural professorial lecture we talked about the need for young people to participate in and to successfully complete education and training up to the age of 18 or 19 in England. This is increasingly the norm in the most successful education systems compared internationally. Unfortunately, England still falls short of this goal because many young people leave before 18 and do not complete upper secondary levels of qualification. We opened the lecture by asking whether it was now appropriate to talk about an upper secondary education system in England? We focused on England rather than the UK because it remains the largest system by a long way and neighbouring national education systems (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) are diverging from England.

The term ‘upper secondary’ is used more commonly at the international level when describing the phase that precedes higher education and entry to the labour market. We argued that it is useful to use this term because it suggests that this is a proper phase of education (e.g. like primary education), rather than a set of loose arrangements tacked onto compulsory education, which finishes at 16. However, in the English case we made four other arguments. First, that the phase should span the years 14-19 because of the need for young people to have four or more years to achieve as highly as possible. Second, for it to be universal by which we mean it should genuinely ensure that it includes all learners. Presently, there is a sharp divide at 16 as young people begin to be sifted for higher education. Third, that it should be unified, rather than being arranged around the academic/vocational divide. In curricular terms, this would mean the development of a unified baccalaureate within which all learners would experience a common core of learning, together with opportunity to specialise from 16+. This does not mean that all young people would do the same thing or study only at school. Rather, the idea of what we term the ‘core/specialisation’ model allows for diversity within a common framework. Some learners would be studying in school and college, while others would be mainly located in the workplace in apprenticeships. Fourth, and importantly in a system which does not do this currently, we argue for the upper secondary phase to be underpinned by a number of common values, principles and purposes (see pages 16 and 17 in the lecture) so that a diversity of pathways and delivering institutions can be bound together by a sense of common purpose.

2) Why do you feel this topic is important at this juncture?

We felt it was important to make a coherent statement at this point in the policy process. The previous government flirted with the idea of a unified system, but did not have the political courage to see it through. The current Coalition Government wants to see a much more divided system that takes us back to the 1950s – the restoration of old linear terminally examined A Levels rather than a modular system (students in England still typically study three subjects in the second year of A Levels when they are aged 17/18). The Government also wants to bring back a two-tier examination at 16 (the old Ordinary Level and its second class alternative – the Certificate of Secondary Education) to replace the more unified General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) that was introduced in 1986. This is the system we were part of in the 1960s and we remember the disastrous effects it had for the majority of the cohort. The other major motivation for the lecture was to respond to the new economic context in which young people are suffering disproportionately from unemployment and we need to ask major questions about what upper secondary education is for.

We concluded by asserting that the upper secondary education system in England should reflect and promote the more equal and democratic society that we want to build in the future rather than reinforcing its current inequalities and divisions. We want to foster a sense of optimism for young people, for those who work with them and for society at large about the power of education to transform lives at a time of deepening crisis in the economy, the environment and social relations.

3) Now for our American readers, could you briefly describe this “upper secondary education system”

We have said a bit about this in the previous section, but it might be useful to add the following. Currently, young people follow a National Curriculum up to the age of 14. From 14-16 (which is called Key Stage 4, the end of which still marks the completion of compulsory education), they have to take a core of subjects including English, mathematics, science and religious education. This core is much smaller than in the past so young people have more choice to follow, for example, vocational subjects. The majority take up to 10 GCSE examinations at 16. Following this, almost all now stay on in full-time education for at least one year and the majority for two in a range of competing providing institutions.

The most popular qualification is A Level, but young people can also study a range of vocational awards. Only a very small proportion (about 6%) enter apprenticeships at 16. Our post-16 arrangements are unique internationally insofar as we allow young people to specialize to a high degree and the principle of choice is paramount. There is no requirement for any form of breadth in post-16 study, even in terms of English and maths. This approach has always been controversial, not least because of variability. Some students, particularly in the affluent private schools, often take 4 A Levels and supplement a narrow academic diet with a large number of voluntary or co-curricular activities.

Elsewhere, the narrow diet serves to disadvantage our students when compared internationally. This elective system is also deeply inequitable because outcomes depend on where you live, the school you attend and your prior attainment. Moreover, those on vocational courses have less money spent on them and have less certain outcomes in terms of higher education and employment. These problems of upper secondary education in England may help you understand our underlying argument.

4) Now, Ofsted- what role do they play in this or are they not relevant?

Ofsted (our inspectorate) plays a very important role because it regulates educational standards in schools, colleges and work-based learning providers. However, in our lecture we criticized the use of what we termed ‘policy levers’, such as Ofsted, by government. Ofsted has focused the attention of teachers, lecturers and their managers on a narrow set of performance indicators that, while important for attainment, do not necessarily support the progression of young people throughout the upper secondary phase. Teaching to the test to get young people through examinations can work against them in the longer run because it does not adequately prepare them for the next stage of study or indeed for adult life.

Furthermore Ofsted, increasingly under the Coalition Government, has become an instrument to be used against teachers rather than being in partnership with them. In our lecture we argued for a deeper and more collaborative professionalism and see the inspectorate as part of this.

5) What do you mean by an ecosystem vision?

Our concept of an ‘eco-system’ appreciates the inter-dependency of a wide range of factors needed for successful reform – curricular, organisational and institutional, employers and the labour market, the role of universities, a new kind of teacher professionalism and changes to the way that policy is conducted . This involves recognition that upper secondary education should be seen as part of a complex and inter-dependent ecological system that requires collective deliberation and action to promote the sustainable participation, development and progression of all 14-19 year olds.

The eco-system concept of change draws upon American experiences, notably David Finegold’s concept of ‘high skill eco-systems’ used to describe the relationship between clusters of high-tech companies and research-intensive universities in California. We adapted this concept to argue for the creation of a national ‘high opportunity progression eco-system’ (HOPE) for upper secondary education in England that responds to both the challenges of history and the new context. We argued that such an ecological approach would suggest a number of related dimensions of reform that embrace unity and diversity, national and local, leadership and professionalism, change and stability. This reform approach would thus require five connected sets of reforms:

  1. An overarching vision and set of purposes that speak to all young people, their parents, educators and wider social partners and that provide the ‘cultural glue’ of the eco-system.
  2. A unified curriculum, assessment and qualifications framework (a unified baccalaureate) for enhanced general and vocational education.
  3. A more supportive and engaged role for employers and higher education providers, which involves greater regulation of the labour market and a move towards a social partnership conception.
  1. A strongly collaborative local learning system of providers that combines institutional autonomy with a strong sense of shared professionalism, locality and region and which is capable of supporting 14+ participation, progression and transition for all learners in an area.
  2. A gradual and more deliberative policy process in which national leadership is focused more on providing a framework for professional and economic action at the local and regional levels and less on political micro-management.

6) To use a phrase “the world has gone on-line”. How many on-line classes do you teach, and what is your overall view of online or web-based learning, and does this fit into your book?

Like everyone else, we are embracing aspects of the digital age. While this was not the focus of our lecture, it could conceivably become part of the unified and eco-system vision. Within, for example, a unified curriculum and baccalaureate framework young people would be encouraged to learn in different ways. However, we are aware that we are in danger of becoming ‘data rich’ and ‘knowledge poor’ as young people grapple with endless information and struggle to develop the means to interrogate it. In this regard we argued for a radical reform of general education so that young people would not only learn the content of subjects, but would also develop the capacity to question that knowledge. These are precisely the skills need to successfully navigate a more web-based world.

7) What are you currently researching?

Our inaugural lecture marked an important point in our research and wider academic life because it represented the culmination of 20 years of collaboration with fellow researchers, policy-makers and practitioners. We hope it will also provide a springboard for our work in years to come. In this regard we are collaborating with colleagues from Leeds University to explore the dynamics of localities or what we term ‘local learning ecologies’ and have written papers for a number of conferences this summer around the eco-system theme. We are also collaborating with various stakeholders around the development of a unified baccalaureate system for England that could be implemented by a new government in 2015.

In addition, we are working with a number of local authorities and groups of schools and colleges around the formation of new types of partnership in upper secondary education. We are advocating the development of what we term ‘14+ progression and transition boards’ – vertically integrated network of education providers, employers, universities, local government and economic regeneration agencies that focus on building progression pathways for all 14-19 year olds and also pay a new level of attention to transitions at 18+, particularly around apprenticeships and the youth labour market. Fewer young people are seeking access to university in England because of a very sharp hike in tuition fees and these new more economically oriented partnerships are in part a reflection of these shifts in the sentiments of young people.

8. How can interested readers get a copy of this book?

Towards a universal upper secondary education system in England: A unified and ecosystem vision by Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours is available to order in North America from Stylus Publishing and can also be ordered from all online book retailers such as Amazon.

In the UK it can be purchased from John Smith’s Education Bookshop and can also be ordered from all good bookshops and online retailers such as Amazon.

About the authors

Ann Hodgson has worked as a teacher, lecturer, LEA adviser, editor and civil servant, joining the Institute of Education, University of London in 1993, where she is now a Professor of Education, Assistant Director (London) and Co-director of the Centre for Post-14 Research and Innovation.

Ken Spours is an Assistant Director for Equalities and Engagement at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is co-Director of the Centre for Post-14 Research and Innovation.


A little bit about the Institute of Education, University of London

The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognized by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.

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