In order to achieve that goal, the coalition and now the Conservatives have undertaken reforms in three main areas: to school structures, so that more schools could have the autonomy to make the decisions for their pupils that they thought best; to the curriculum and our exam system, so that all pupils could receive a thorough grounding in our shared intellectual history and receive qualifications that stand comparison with the best in the world; and to teachers and head teachers, so that they can constantly seek to improve and remain focused on teaching and learning.
The day after hundreds of thousands of teenagers have received their A-Level results is an apposite time to reflect on these changes and, in particular, those to the curriculum and assessment.
In 2010, two fifths of all students did not achieve a Grade C in English and Maths GCSE – the basic minimum level asked for by universities and employers. Among the poorest children – those eligible for free school meals – a majority left school without these qualifications.
Yet the overall pass rate kept rising year on year, due to the rapid rise in students taking less demanding “GCSE equivalent” subjects. Between 2004 and 2010, the numbers taking these courses increased dramatically – from 15,000 to 575,000 – as schools caught on to the benefit such qualifications could give them in the league tables. Inevitably, perhaps, it was children from poorer areas and less well performing schools that disproportionately took these up, while schools in leafier areas kept with the more traditional options. The resulting achievement gap was described by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, as “educational apartheid”.
Many students realised only after receiving their qualifications that they were not respected by employers or universities, and so had few options, regardless of their academic ability. And the provision for some after the age of 16 was no better. Professor Alison Wolf, asked by the government to review 14-19 vocational education, concluded that “the staple offer for between a quarter and a third of the post-16 cohort is a diet of low-level vocational qualifications, most of which have little to no labour market value… [I] estimate that at least 350,000 get little to no benefit from the post-16 education system.”
Since 2010, more than 2,100 low value vocational qualifications have been axed, and the counting of “equivalents” in GCSE league tables was ended in 2012. Alongside that, the government introduced the new “English Baccalaureate” measure (EBacc) to report how many children were achieving the core grouping of rigorous GCSEs – English, Maths, one of the humanities, a science, and a modern foreign language. Between 2010 and 2014, there was a 71 per cent increase in students taking the “EBacc” combination. The national curriculum has also been rewritten at every stage, from primary school through to A-Level, from 2014 onwards. It has been explicitly benchmarked to sit alongside those of the top performing education systems in the world.
The 2015 A-Level results show some encouraging proof of the efficacy of these changes. The overall pass rate has remained virtually unchanged from last year, at 98.1 per cent, with 8.2 per cent of the cohort again achieving the top A* grade. But there has been a real shift in subject choice. Between 2010 and 2014, entries for Chemistry A-Level rose by 23 per cent, Physics by 22 per cent, and Maths by 19 per cent. Meanwhile, the traditional foreign languages French and German have fallen away – declining by 19 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.
And as we have seen from yesterday, students are progressing to university more than ever before. Contrary to dire warnings when fees rose to £9,000, entries to university are at record levels, including from the most disadvantaged students. Since 2011, entry rates for disadvantaged pupils at universities with the highest entry requirements have increased by 40 per cent, and last year 63 per cent of students in London eligible for free school meals went to university. Students recognise that a degree is still a passport to future success in many cases, and they are supported by a generous loan regime in which a newly qualified nurse will pay back just £5.10 a month and a new teacher £9.33.
There will undoubtedly be challenges for the school system in the next five years, including bedding down the new curriculum, dealing with tighter finances and recruiting teachers in the midst of a strong economy. But solid foundations have been laid.
Jonathan Simons is head of education at Policy Exchange.