Can any good come from the worst universities charging £9,000? Let’s hope so

It’s getting quite hard to justify some of the universities that have chosen to charge the full £9,000 a year. It was easy to do with the choices made a few months ago, when all those that declared the full limit were members of either the Russell Group or the 1994, but now some of the additions are worrying.

Recent additions have been: Keele, City, and University College Falmouth. These join the list alongside Liverpool John Moores and University of Central Lancashire that are neither members of the 1994 or Russell Groups. If this becomes in any way the norm then we have a potentially, horrifying problem on our hands. Firstly there is no reason that these universities should be charging such atrocious rates for the second or third-rate institutions. If my old university decides to charge full amount I will be disgusted. The fees increase could have allowed for a progressive level of cost based on the quality of the institution. It would have been fair if Southampton Solent charged £3,000 a year and Oxbridge charged £9,000. You are paying for the level of education you receive.

This would not be my ideal plan of course. Granting these lower institutions the permission to give their students a ‘degree’ that, comparatively, is worthless is a hideous experiment on the children of the future. I am still a firm believer that the bottom sixty or so universities should have their university status removed. I welcome those universities to exist as educational centres of some capacity, as long as they don’t call the services offered a ‘degree’. It is unfair to the pupils who will study there.

So allow me to be optimistic for a second. Perhaps the tuition fees increase will allow us to debate higher education in general. If the likes of Middlesex or South Bank or East London started charging £9,000 a year, then maybe it will make the general public question what they are getting for their money. Speaking from experience, most members of the public seem to realise the difference in quality between our best and worst universities. The people who don’t notice the difference, are the people at the worst institutions. Some (rational) level of national debate needs to happen with our universities, but also the careers advisors of failing secondary schools need to change as well. They need to stop telling their pupils (as I know they have done) that going to any university is better than not going at all. They need to stop telling their pupils that the difference between our worst and best is small (as I know some have done). They need to stop fulfilling the New Labour, Blairite dream of completely devaluing education and our university system getting 50% of people into university.

The entire educational reform that this country needs is going to take a long time, but perhaps this increase in fees will help invigorate public debate that is necessary. Well, let’s hope so.

Lowering the entry requirements for the poor is patronising

The Times is leading with the confirmation that from today, universities will be told to take students from poorer backgrounds. As one university chancellor told The Times “We are not talking about AAB — more like dropping to Bs and Cs.”

As I have said many times before, we do not need nor want top-class education for all. That education is for an elite; an academic elite. It goes without saying that the richer children in the country will be given advantages and privileges that the poorer won’t, and this is something that needs to be rectified, but it is not an excuse for this initiative.

The majority of the Oxford student makeup is from State schools, not independent schools. Therefore it is clear that children, no matter what school you went to, who your parents are, or where you are from, can, if they achieve well, get into Oxford.

It is patronising to lower the grade boundaries in a New Labour-esque drive for positive discrimination. It will cut a deeper social divide between the poor and the rich, because the poor will now have another difference to their academic peers. This is to say nothing of the performance problems involved; a student who got ACC should not be considered a potential Oxford candidate. Oxford will be hard enough, without the added intellectual inferiority around your classmates.

The Government should not try to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich by lowering the aspirations or expectations of those who are worse off. Frankly I am surprised that Michael Gove has allowed such a terrible move under his watch.

Michael Gove has made a good start, but he still has a long way to go

Photo by Paul Clarke

Michael Gove has written a blog, preaching to the converted, over at ConservativeHome. I recognised most of the rhetoric from his usual speeches and debates, but there were a few points hidden amongst the rest of the piece that I didn’t realise. Without trying to sound like the Daily Mail too much, I was shocked and annoyed by the few strands of detail that our National Curriculum actually has in it. William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano are the only two historical figures who are named as a requirement in secondary school history. Geography, to quote Gove directly, “mentions no countries apart from the UK, no continents, no rivers, no oceans, no mountains and no cities – although it does mention the European Union.”

I fully support the feeling that many Conservative MPs and other right-wingers share, that British history should be taught in our schools. However I do not like their determination to have the subject added explicitly in the National Curriculum. This is because, instinctively, I accept my education as the norm whereby I was taught by a multitude of teachers (at my Grammar school) who went above and beyond the demands of the National Curriculum. They were only ever held back by the National Curriculum. The sense I have is that many teachers at schools, the places I read about where subjects are only taught to pass exams, stretch themselves only as far as to meet the measly demands of the National Curriculum.

Wilberforce and Equiano are not the two most important names in history, the sheer notion that only two figures are essential enough to be mentioned is ridiculous. Quite why the European Union is mentioned in Geography syllabus is bizarre. Yet I still do not accept, like many Conservatives, that they way to fix it is by adding our own demands onto this failed Thatcherite concept . Labour have had their fun destroying the National Curriculum, it is our job to fix it. Michael Gove says that he wants to revolutionise our education system, but what is he actually going to do to make our Curriculum the best in the world?

Gove lists a selection of absurdities in our National Curriculum, but it will not be fixed by adding more requirements to it. He talks of reform “on every front,” he is right, and something needs to be done about our exams very soon. The National Curriculum will only account for so much, if exams let our students only read a few acts of Macbeth and gain an English Literature qualification. The National Curriculum will only account for so much if we have teachers only teaching that which is necessary.

We need to phase out GCSEs and move towards IGCSEs and only then will our education system be liberated to do what it is there for: to teach. Education fails in so many of our schools because it only teaches students to gain a ‘C’ in our worthless GCSE examinations. The education I received was not the best by any stretch of the imagination, but it was clearly better than most. I believe Gove when he says he wants to improve education across the board. Free schools and the English Baccalaureate are a fantastic start, but we need to see more. Michael Gove needs to follow in the footsteps of Andrew Lansley and start a radical shakeup of our education system.

To end, I will quote his closing line. Poetic rhetoric like this rarely features in right-wing political thought, but it is natural here. It is all very well dreaming of our future, but we need action now. “The future lies in elevating our sights, raising aspiration, and daring to imagine the new heights our children might scale, which is why we need to step up the pace of reform, not slow down.”

Michael Gove came out on top form last night

The Old and Sad by-election may produce most of this morning’s non-news, but we should not forget last night’s Question Time. A very welcome return for the program that seems to have been gone forever (even though its actually about five or six weeks?). Now unfortunately I am still using my BlackBerry for Internet access, which is not designed for streaming iPlayer videos clearly, and so cannot re-watch the clip easily. The teachers unions must have got a sniff about Michael Gove’s appearance because there were a lot of teachers kicking about in the audience. All ready with their provoking questions trying to attack Gove on a lot of subjects, but mostly the English Baccalaureate.

Michael Gove is one of the Tories I consistently like, I think he’s a very good debater and not just inside Westminster. From what I can tell, many outside of the village, and indeed outside of the Tory base, are fond of him as well. There’s a folksy but disarmingly intelligent charm that he manages to use when required.

So while I was expecting a warm and well-worded response from Gove in reply to the EB criticism, nothing prepared me for the fireworks that ensued. There’s a reason The Spectator keep reminding us that the Coalition is doing good things, and Michael Gove is one of those reasons.

He told us how we’ve fallen behind internationally, how we should take advice from abroad, we should be “humble and a bit less arrogant” about the state of our education system. He pointed out that in other countries with better results, at 16 you have the well rounded education that the English Baccalaureate aims to produce, not as the number one priority, but as a core basis that is needed. He said that our country’s falling ability in foreign languages makes us “insular and narrow-minded,” and then he pulled out the big guns.

He brought up Mossborne Academy in Hackney which has a higher percentage of children on free school meals than the average in Hackney, and a higher percentage of special needs children than the average in Hackney. Yet the results of the Academy were better than in “leafy parts of the country.” He was on a roll by this point, and then his final speech hit the nail in the head. At not many other points will a Tory, during the current climate, get such a rapturous applause as Michael Gove did when this finished:

All of us are facing an education challenge. How can we ensure we end the patronising twoddle of the last thirteen years, that assumes just because kids come from working class backgrounds, that they can’t succeed in academic subjects. Because of my background I am determined to ensure that children have that chance and when people say ‘oh you are damning children because they can’t succeed,’ what I hear is the next genereation being written off becuase we don’t have high aspirations for them. One thing I want to do in politics is transform our education system, so that the kids who have been written off in the past at last have a chance to succeed.

The instantaneous twitter buzz was impressive and uniform, Gove had come out on top form. Michael Gove always succeeds in education debates because he is so helplessly dedicated, passionate and inspired by it. The public may often criticise ministers or MPs because their heart’s not in it, but watching Gove you could have no doubt.


If you didn’t see it, watch Question Time again on Iplayer. The education questions come in around the 40 minute mark.


Gove to set Reading MOT

Michael Gove is to set a new ‘MOT’ at six years old, to test whether a child can read. Those who fail the MOT will see extra help given to them. This is in a bid to combat the recent findings that a worrying amount of children are going to secondary school unable to properly read.

As I blogged the other day, a lot of the issue with reading stems from parents as well. While this reading MOT could never fix the problems of bad parenting, at least it will be able to show, at an early stage, whether a child can read or not. At six, this will then give the child a further five years to be given all the attention needed to get them prepared for secondary school. This new test will be introduced alongside the new reading method of ‘systematic synthetic phonics’. A method which Gove calls the “single most effective method” to better your reading ability.

This is a good start, but Michael Gove still needs to do more, children need to be given the enthusiasm and encouragement that they should be receiving at home, in schools. We need better teachers, and we need to start seeing some of these headmasters sacked. Gove has promised it, let’s now see it in action.

When will Gove start talking about Primary Schools?

The Guardian, report this morning on the fact that just under 40% of primary school students, leave without the ability to “write a proper sentence using commas or tackle basic arithmetic in their heads.” This rises to half, for the children on free school meals. This is one of the most horrifying statistics I’ve ever come across. Even worse is that 4000 schools boycotted the SATs this year and so these figures will be skewed. I was never a fan of SATs at school, and we used to freely discuss that they were only there for the school’s sake, and not for ours. Yet now they have produced something shocking. I really can’t get over this statistic.

By token of the new Government standards, this means that nearly 1000 primary schools may be shut or taken over as a result. The NUT will already be going crazy over this, and fighting for those clearly terrible schools. These schools need to be closed, and we need a system in place that means the teachers we have in schools are dedicated to their children.

The school system can only do so much though. One of my friends has worked with, as part of her University’s Outreach program, various primary schools. At one she worked with a year two class, where over half of the students were unwilling to pick up a pencil to write or draw. This is such an absurd concept for me, the few memories I have of those early school years were filled with drawing, painting (perhaps with my hands, but still) and writing. Yet I also remember going home and my parents encouraging me to read, and my grandparents encouraging me further with art.

Teachers can only do so much, it is naive to think that teachers can replace parents. Education needs drastic reform if it is going to be the great social mobiliser that it could be. Yet as my friend discovered at one of her schools, there are teachers who didn’t want to be there, and this cannot be the only school where this is true. I worry about how easy it may be to become a primary school teacher considering that the early years are arguably the most important in your life. I worry that too many people embark on a career in education on a whim. I also worry that, while Michael Gove’s free schools programme will be a great thing, his education policy is a little fixated at the top end of education. When will the beginning and the early years get reform? These are the answers that we need.