Schooling’s Existential Crisis in an Age of Austerity

The news yesterday, that over 200,000 students have been left without a university place this year, points to an issue which is looming for all secondary schools: what exactly is their core purpose? Many, such as Guy Claxton, have written about this recently, but it seems that the debate is about to be intensified.During the Blair years, it was clear that the key function of schools was to get at least half of all UK young people into university. But now, all bets are off. The Global Financial Crisis begat the the comprehensive spending review, which  begat a reduction in the number of university places available (particularly in humanities subjects) and a rise in tuition fees. Taken together, this will surely lead to significantly fewer young people  applying to go to uni  in the medium-term .Thus, for the foreseeable future, we can say goodbye to entry into university being the means to bridging the attainment gap between working class kids and their better-offs. Universities will be required to pick and choose more carefully. Grade escalation and the simple laws of supply and demand imply that fewer students from working class background will have the necessary grades to get in to any university, let alone their chosen one.

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.


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