A change of attitude?

by Marc Rowland.

I recently allowed myself to be distracted by a debate about education standards and the achievement gap on Twitter (probably involving @samfr) as a way of avoiding a challenging piece of work. Twitter is great displacement.

One of the things I find a little frustrating about the education community is that we are often aiming for the same thing, a better education for all, but expend lots of energy arguing about how to achieve it. In my opinion, the current government could not be any more forthright in its commitment to closing the gap. However, creating pantomime villains such as Toby Young or throwing out every initiative from the previous government because of association is decidedly unhelpful.

One of the successes of the Labour Government was to highlight the importance of all young people reaching a standard at certain points in their education, to avoid them slipping through the net. These standards are now embedded in the psyche of mainstream primary schools and many expect all but those facing exceptionally challenging circumstances to get a good level four in English and Maths, the foundation stones of a grade C at GCSE. However, as students move into KS3 & 4, when factors outside of school have a greater influence on young people, the expectation of a standard does not appear to be continued through into secondary school and GCSE exams.

A good level four at the end of KS2 is utterly pointless if a child subsequently gets a G grade at GCSE. Can we not agree that a minimum standard all students in mainstream education should be a C at GCSE in English and Maths? This should no longer be considered, as it was when I was at school, a test that some people passed and some failed. There should be a renewed moral imperative for schools, and a duty for young people, their families and society to work together so that all students reach the required standard at 16 years old. Perhaps we should even move on from the GCSE and agree a new standard, free of baggage from the past?

The skills gained in reaching a good standard in English and Maths at 16 do not guarantee anything, but they will offer some choice, and will undoubtedly provide confidence to excel in other areas, whether they support economic or cultural advancement (or both!). Success in literacy and numeracy will be the building blocks for personalised, individual success for all. But schools can’t achieve this alone.


Going back to the Twitter arguments, far too much energy is wasted arguing about school structures and government initiatives. In the last 10 years I have had the privilege to visit, learn and read about schools at every stage on their journey. I have talked to headteachers of wonderful schools that stand out, amazing innovators and leaders, and seen some breathtaking teaching.

At the heart of the National Education Trust’s work is sharing, promoting and learning from what these ‘stand out’ teachers and schools do. For me, it is a mixture of great leadership, a culturally relevant curriculum, excellent teaching, a sparkling environment and great attitudes to learning. This list contains nothing new, but what appears to be missing from much of the current debate is the most difficult to crack – attitudes to learning. Getting those parents and families that had a poor experience of education themselves to cross the threshold and engage with their children’s learning is a golden key to success. ‘I never got an education and it never did me any harm’ is a powerful message that schools might find difficult to counteract. However, the opportunities for school leavers without the basic standards are tiny compared to 25 years ago – I regularly sit and chat to Russell Group University graduates looking for any opportunity to kick start their careers. The competition was once from Cardiff or Clapham, but young people are now competing with those from Melbourne and Mumbai too.

I would like to hear a better debate on what works in improving attitudes to learning and education. Sir David Bell described it as the ‘Holy Grail’ when he launched the National Education Trust at our first Annual lecture in 2007.

Government, opposition, policy makers, schools and the third sector should be together on this – we should promote what works, share evidence and best practice and come together for a common goal. We need to learn from the children and families living alongside the railways in Old Delhi or those emerging from chaotic lives in Cambodia clinging to their one school book as if their life depended on it. They value an education above almost anything else.

To be provocative, every young person and their family need to value their education over a heavily discounted holiday in term time in the months leading up to exams. A good starting point might be to make it clear that there is a minimum standard expected of us all, and everyone needs to contribute to achieve it.

December 2011
Marc Rowland is business and development manager at the National Education Trust.