UK Qualifications Reform: Looking East and Back Isn’t The Answer



Independent newspaper carries a comment piece, written by me, which has been heavily edited. I was asked to write it in response to the approved leak this week on the UK government’s plan to re-introduce a qualification for ‘less intelligent’ students. The Independent wanted something personal and provocative – sadly, they only went for the personal. The removal of the final two paragraphs – where I criticise Mr Gove for the out-dated copying of the Singaporean system – together with their over-emotive header (“David Price: I was scarred by being classified as ‘thick’, as future generations will be”) makes it appear rather more ‘Poor Me’ than I intended. I’m relaxed about the removal of the name-drops (although Billy Connolly deserves attribution) but it seems that even a centre-left paper like the Indie is trying to avoid holding up these insane proposals to the ridicule they deserve. Whether I was scarred or not, is irrelevant. The reason we should all be concerned is that while Mr Gove is trying to party like it’s 1959, the rest of the world is recognising the need to adapt its qualifications to be fit for the 21st century.

In the interests of balance (not to mention my ego) I present here the actual piece I submitted:

“I was lucky, in 1965, to get a place in my local grammar school. When you come from Jarrow, trust me, that’s a big deal. I had passed the 11-plus exam, but my pride at being officially classified as ‘bright’ was soon dismantled. Within 3 years, I’d been demoted to the bottom set of students. As my school prided itself on its O-level results, I was told that I could only take 6 O-levels, and would have to take 3 CSEs. My confidence plummeted.

Whatever Mr Gove chooses to call his ‘second stream’ qualifications, future students will surely have the same response that I had: as a qualification I knew they were useless, and I couldn’t help thinking that meant that I must be too. I remember doing woodwork (only because it was based upon doing projects) but I can’t even remember the other two. I know I failed all three. I passed all 6 O-levels, but by this time I’d had enough of education. No one in my family had ever been to university, and my compulsory CSEs only reinforced my limited sense of potential.

Fortunately, by this time I had found what my (later) friend and colleague Sir Ken Robinson calls my ‘element’. I was half-decent at music, and in the midst of Beatlemania, believed I could be a musician. And I managed to make a living at it for 15 years after leaving school, thus neatly avoiding the ‘shipyards or pits’ choice for those ‘non-academic’ students living in 1960s Jarrow. At the age of 28, I nervously stepped back into formal education, getting a place on a performing arts degree at the University of Northumbria.

I got first-class honours, and, to my surprise, began a career in education that embraced community, adult, further, and eventually, higher education. I became Director of Learning for the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, so got to work with my musical hero, Sir Paul McCartney, and the aforementioned Sir Ken Robinson. By this time I had two sons at high school, suffering the same toxic mix of boredom and low aspiration as I did. So, I resolved to work in secondary education as an education consultant. I have since led two radical secondary school projects (Musical Futures and Learning Futures) which have succeeded in re-engaging learners weary of the school-as-exam-factory culture which successive governments have promulgated. Michael Gove would, I suspect, strongly disapprove of my student-centred work. But both initiatives have attracted attention from around the world which, I guess, was part of the reason behind the awarding of the OBE for services to education that I received from the Queen, in 2009. Not bad for a thick CSE student. But, despite this royal recognition, I still feel like one day, to quote Billy Connolly, someone will tap me on the shoulder and say ‘we’ve found you out, time to go back to the yards’ – such is the legacy of the CSE scarring.

Ironically, three weeks ago I was in Singapore, invited by the Ministry of Education (so admired by Mr Gove) to share the innovation of the educational projects I’ve led. While Gove’s proposed reforms are set to follow Singapore’s exam system, their aspirations have already moved on. Singapore’s Minister of Education has given officials 18 months to re-build the system so that it can produce students who can create, collaborate, think critically and compete globally in our unpredictable future. Among many other initiatives, they have instigated a pilot programme based on my work.

Meanwhile, our Minister seems to think that we’d be better served by a system which sorts kids, according to their academic potential, at age 14. It didn’t work for me then, and it definitely won’t work now in an era of high youth unemployment. I was lucky in that I found my way back. But millions of others didn’t, and millions of future kids will have their life chances diminished if these regressive proposals see the light of day.”


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7 Responses to UK Qualifications Reform: Looking East and Back Isn’t The Answer

  1. Mike Baker says:

    Spot on, David — and good to have the full version.

  2. David Price says:

    Thanks Mike, appreciate it. I trust you’re well?

  3. Nicole Ginnane says:

    Thanks David, I enjoyed reading the ‘real’ story. As you say, not everyone has the wherewithal to go through a system like that and find their element. It is a tragedy, and what a lost opportunity when we know that it could and should be so much better!

  4. Jonathan Savage says:

    Thanks David, it was good to read the full version of your article. Your frustration at the removal of key paragraphs is well founded. It was a real shame that the newspaper didn’t have the wisdom to preserve the integrity of your piece. More generally, of course you are right to expose the lunacy behind this current Government’s educational policies. I’ve been trying to do this for a couple of years at least. But, as you know, Gove is just not listening to anyone – even his chosen advisors have walked away. It is hard to know how to respond but a concerted effort is needed from the educational community. The Labour party is inept on these matters; we certainly can’t rely on them to mount any informed opposition I’m sorry to say. So, what is there left to do?

  5. Ged Norman says:

    Thanks for this David. Some staff at Matthew Moss were so frustrated that it was possible for Gove to say what he did with so little challenge. For my part, I was waiting for someone to ask if returning to the 1950’s really was a good idea until it dawned on me that too many people, particularly in government, probably think it is, such is the paucity of understanding about learning. So much for our children being our most precious commodity. Even more reason to keep up the fight!

  6. kenholmes says:

    Thank you David. Having put my Year One children through that ridiculous phonic screening check the other week, words like this from you, as well as those from Michael Rosen, Pie Corbett et al give me hope.

  7. esther tyler-ward says:

    I google widely and scour news articles in the hope of finding people who are educating differently. I am a teacher and a mum-to-be and terrified of how the state system is going to restrict learning and personal growth even more in our young people. As an educational advisor, what can you advise a teacher to do to challenge the restrictions imposed on us from the government down and allow young people to flourish? I’m not even head of department, what can I do?

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