Faced with this bleak outcome, how should schools respond?
Well, firstly (and perhaps perversely) there is some consolation to be drawn from the rising number of university graduates who are unemployed. The latest figures show a greater number of unemployed graduates in STEM subjects( the same STEM subjects that the UK government is safeguarding in its teaching grants to universities – go figure). So, fewer places available in less-employable subjects, and all the while the developing countries are offering the same skill-sets at vastly lower costs ($4 an hour gets you a post-grad Indian engineer).
Perhaps our schools will now be emboldened to resist the pressure of league tables, exam results, and look to:
a) recognise that graduation to further education (not necessarily higher) might be a perfectly sensible aspiration for a young person in the 21st century;
b) develop the vital skills (currently not recognised by GCSE examination boards) of creativity, flexibility, adaptive competence, collaboration, independent thinking, and the rest, which will be critical to our economic competitiveness in a borderless employment market-place.
To their credit, it seems that students themselves may be ahead of the curve. There was a rise of 22% in the number of students refusing offers or withdrawing applications. Somewhat superfluously, universities minister, David Willetts, said this week that there were routes other than through university to a successful career, such as apprenticeships or setting up a business. For many of them, David, there’s going to be no other option.
One thing is for sure: if we judge the quality of our schools solely by their exam results, or by the number of students getting a place in university, then we’ll be oblivious to the life-changing possibilities of secondary education. A 21st century school allows young people to have confidence in their future place in the world, by being able to understand that world, and find an outlet for the unique talents and skills they bring.
As things stand, however, slavishly pursuing a university career as the end-point of schooling, may not only damage the long-term confidence of our students, but it will also sucker us, as a nation, into ignoring the development of skills which give us the competitive, innovative edge over other nations.