14-18 – Ask what counts

Richard Pring, March 2013

Introduction: political context

We are witnessing the most radical changes in the system of education and training since the establishment, in 1944, of secondary education for all within a maintained system of education. These changes affect deeply the provision of 14-18 education and training.

Two aspects require clarification. First, the ‘maintained system’ was a partnership between government (central and local), the Churches (trustees of many schools) and the teaching profession. Responsibility for ensuring education for all was in the hands of Local Authorities. Second, ‘secondary education for all’ required a re-think of the organisation of schools. As Edward Boyle, Minister of Education, said in the preface to Newsom Report, 1964, ‘all children should have the opportunity to acquire intelligence, and of developing their talents and abilities to the full’. Subsequently that concern for all children led to the development of comprehensive system of secondary education, intended to cater for the full range of ability, social class and vocational aspiration.

It is important to refer to a comprehensive system rather than to comprehensive schools. The system includes comprehensive schools. But many local authorities have 11-16 schools, from which students transfer to 6th Form Colleges or Tertiary Colleges. These are crucial parts of the comprehensive system – but ones which, despite their merits, could be an endangered species because of the reforms now proposed (see p.8 below).

In what sense, then, are we witnessing a radical change? In Education, Education, Education, Adonis describe how he (as education adviser to Tony Blair and then Minister for Schools), ‘reinvented the comprehensive school’, leading to ‘a nationwide movement for educational transformation’ – namely, academies, the ‘new type of independent state school, with dynamic independent sponsors taking charge of their management’ 1. To that end the maintained system is being dismantled, schools are individually contracted and accountable to the Secretary of State, and their continued future depends on the Ofsted inspectors and the results of tests and examinations agreed by the Secretary of State.

Demise of local education authorities, centralisation of education through contracts to the Secretary of State, success or otherwise of school and colleges on the basis of a testing regime, and influential calls for the creation of a three stage system of schooling (5 to 9, 9 to 14, 14 to 18)2 affect profoundly how we see the future for 14-18 year-olds.

Adolescence and social context

The Hadow Report, 1926, aptly entitled The Education of the Adolescent, claimed that ‘there is a tide which begins to rise in the veins of youth at the age of 11 or 12. It is called by the name of adolescence’3 . That tide is more often than not in full flood by the age of 14, and hence 14 is the age at which a shift in the nature of education is advocated by many 4. Already choices are made at 14 between different educational pathways leading to different qualifications at 16 – affecting further choices for qualifications at 18. Moreover, to support such choices, transfer to different institutions is now made available at 14 – full-time through the new University Technical Colleges (the brain-child of Kenneth Baker) and part-time through partnerships between schools and colleges of further education (affecting over 100,000 young people). Indeed, it has been proposed that young people at the age of 14 should be able to transfer full-time to FE Colleges where there will be more effective vocational pathways.

The argument is that between the age of 14 and 18, young people require a more adult environment as they prepare for the future. They require a wider range of opportunities than can be offered by schools, which inevitably lack the expertise and resources to satisfy the learning needs of many. Also, recent reviews of research have shown how much the lives of young people have changed over recent decades, especially in relation to the increase in mental health problems5. Again, David Lammy’s analysis of the 2000 young people (90% male) prosecuted for offences in the 2011 Autumn riots, points to the need for more practical, engaging and vocational preparation for working life 6. The traditional framework of the curriculum and of the school day may well not satisfy the range of learning needs of young people with such different aspirations, abilities, social backgrounds and problems to be overcome. It would seem that one size does not fit all.

Add to this the changed economic situation and declining opportunities in the labour market. Up to the mid-1970s, the majority of young people would leave school at 16 (the raising of the school leaving age was in 1972) without qualifications but able to find work in unskilled jobs. By 2000 the majority were in full-time education. Now nearly 50% continue into higher education. But the collapse of the labour market leaves a million of 16 -19 year-olds without employment or likelihood of employment, despite being better qualified.

How should such factors affect our understanding of the aims of education for 14-18 year olds, of the kind of learning to be promoted, of the range of qualifications worth pursuing, of the institutional provision which will respond to so many different needs?

Aims of education

Such a question forces us to raise fundamental questions about the aims of education and the values which schools, colleges and youth service should nurture. Unexamined values shape the educational experience of young people from 14 to 18. These values need to be examined critically: for example, the division between prestigious academic pathways for some and vocational studies for others; the dismissal of arts and humanities from the core curriculum at 14 or in the core subjects which had been proposed for the EBac; concentration on examination grades; absence of practical knowledge and experiential engagement for those deemed ‘academic’; the mode through which merit is recognised in formal assessments. All these reflect unquestioned values and thus the aims of education.

What then, by contrast, are the educational aims which enable all young people to live fully human lives – not just the academically able. We need a vision of 14-18 education which embraces those who have opted out of or who are disengaged from formal education – those who are often rescued by colleges of further education or by the youth service with its own distinctive pedagogical approaches (see the evidence of the National Youth Agency to the Select Committee 7 ).

Such aims are: to develop
• self-worth – leaving school or college with a sense of achievement and able to enter the adult world with a sense of dignity and confidence;
• basic capabilities in reading, numeracy and communicating both orally and in writing;
• knowledge and understanding for the intelligent management of life – making sense of the social, physical and economic worlds they inhabit;
• practical capabilities through which they come to understand the world in a different way and to act creatively within it;
• ‘moral seriousness’ in thinking about the life worth living and about the big problems which affect the future (e.g. environmental destruction);
• capacity to contribute to the wider community of which they are part.

Such aims requires a wider vision of learning than what generally prevails, too often driven by ‘high-stakes testing’ and the consequent league tables.

A wider vision of learning

Formal education is dominated by success in narrowly conceived forms of academic learning, thus undermining other capabilities of importance to our society, namely, those reflecting the broader aims outlined above. This is crucial, not simply for the many young people disengaged from formal learning due to its narrow focus and the deep sense of failure caused, but also for those deemed successful but whose success often lacks understanding of the subject matter. (See, for example, the trenchant criticisms by the Smith Report where successful teaching to the test, though leading to high scores, too often leads to poor understanding) 8 .

A wider vision of learning is required, one which respects the practical as well as the academic, informal and experiential as well as formal learning, key concepts and ideas as well as facts and formulae, and the possibilities opened up by recent developments in Information and Communication Technology. It should draw on the range of expertise and resources within the community. There is a need, therefore, to restore

• practical capability and technical knowledge, for, in words of the Royal Society of the Arts, which for 250 years has emphasized the unity of thinking and doing, there exists in its own right a culture which is concerned with doing and making and organising and the creative arts. This culture emphasises the day to day management of affairs, the formulation and solution of problems, and the design, manufacture and marketing of goods and services 9.
And yet that ‘intelligent doer’ is too often neglected – unrecognised in the ‘standards’ by which learner and school or college are tested;

• development of understanding, namely, a grasp of the key ideas through which young people understand (at different levels) the physical, social and moral worlds they belong to. This must not be confused with the ‘transmission of knowledge’, as is illustrated by ACME’s The Mathematical Need of the Learner;

• the centrality of the arts (drama, dance, fine arts) through the active participation in which young people are enabled to explore what it means to be human;

• space for discussing matters of personal and social concern, based on evidence and experience (e.g., as in once widespread ‘Humanities Curriculum Project’);

• emphasis on the quality of work-based learning;

• engagement in community activities through which they come to see how their efforts, howsoever modest, can make a difference for the better.

All the above need to be learned through the initiation into the different forms of knowledge and understanding, into moral traditions so neglected, into practices of doing and making, and into civic and public traditions of service.

Need for Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG)

Essential to this wider vision of learning, as young people have to make decisions as early as 14 about their future (namely, the learning pathways to follow and the qualifications to pursue), is an independent, impartial and well-informed IAG.

Let us consider some of the problems. There are about 8000 possible combinations of A Level examinations. The wrong combination, chosen in all innocence, might deprive the student opportunity to enter the degree course wanted. The Russell Group of universities require of the majority of successful candidates to have a university based examination or test as well as their A Levels. The more knowing schools will provide coaching or at least show where such coaching is available – something not known about by many schools. Again, those who seek apprenticeships need to know where such apprenticeships are to be found. Again, students often move onto Level 2 vocational qualifications in college, discovering only later that the qualification leads to nowhere.

Despite these problems, appropriate IAG is not available for many. Connexions Service has focused on the minority who are in danger of becoming disengaged from education. IAG for the rest has too often been conducted within schools by people who are not well informed about routes into the plethora of higher education degrees (with different A Level and entry test requirements), appropriate further education courses, local and regional apprenticeships, and employment needs and possibilities. Rather should such IAG be shared by schools and further education, data driven (what has happened to young people who took such and such a qualification?), and peopled by experts.

However, despite the vital importance of an independent and professionally staffed IAG , it is notable for its absence in the lives of many young people as the most recent Richard Review has pointed out 10 .

Impoverishment of learning through testing and qualifications turnover

‘High stakes’ testing, at 14, 16, 17 and 18, in preparation for national examinations and tests, impoverishes learning. It encourages teaching to the test, extensively researched by Mansell 11. Yet, under the revitalised system of accountability, under the political ‘reforms’ referred to in the first section, and under the role of Ofsted inspectors, the ‘high stakes testing’ will become even higher. This impoverishment of learning applies as much to those who are deemed highly successful 12 as it does to those who are disengaged. Furthermore, the system of qualifications, into which this assessment feeds, is highly complex in terms of progression routes, levels and equivalences, and little understood by employers, young people themselves and higher education.

One needs to reflect on the damage done to so many by the constant changes in the examination and qualification system, affecting particularly those who do not go up the academic route. Remember, for instance, the pre-vocational courses beginning with CGLI 365 in the 1970s, superseded by CPVE, superseded by DOVE, superseded by GNVQ, superseded by 14-19 Diplomas. This last was said by DfES, only three years ago, to be the future qualification of choice. Now it is dead. Remember, too, the complex framework of GCSE equivalences, now abandoned so that once highly successful schools have now become highly unsuccessful – where the change has been, not in teaching or curriculum, but in an arbitrary shift in accountability. Remember, too, the recent debacle over AL2 (seeking a return to AS Supplementary), Ebac and EBCs 13.

But do we need any longer to have a public and highly expensive examination at 16, when the leaving age for education in some form or other is to be raised to 18? There is a need to return to the proposals of the Tomlinson Report for an overarching Diploma at 18 reflecting the wide range of educational achievements, including apprenticeships 14.


• the different purposes of assessment (i.e. supporting learning; holding the system accountable; certifying achievements) require different modes of assessment. Research showing how this possibility has been ignored in favour of assessing only what is easily measurable 15 ;

• assessment should reflect the aims of learning, including the practical, informal and experiential, as these are negotiated with HE and occupational sectors;

• qualification reform needs to pause whilst a representative and independent Commission, on the basis of wide consultation, relevant research and evidence, makes recommendations which ensure stability for the future.

Curriculum and teaching

Teaching is increasingly referred to as a matter of ‘delivering the curriculum’, as though the curriculum is a document or a set of instructions for a technical expert in ‘delivery’ to transmit. This reflects the gradual demise of teaching as a profession. Rather should the teacher be seen, not as ‘curriculum deliverer’, but as ‘curriculum thinker’ whose expertise lies in (a) knowledge and love of the subject-matter being taught, (b) the pedagogical know-how through which the learners (of different types and attainments) might engage with that subject-matter, (c) thinking about (action research into) how educational aims might be implemented in the classroom. And this applies just as much to the master craftsman teaching the apprentice in the workshop.

The emphasis is on the teacher rather than on the curriculum, because there is no curriculum development without teacher development 16 . A broad curriculum framework is necessary, and again this applies to those who, either on vocational courses or apprenticeships, are engaged in practical and occupation-related education and training (see Baker’s and Winch’s examples of what this could mean in particular instances 17). But it is the professional job of teachers and trainers, working together, to exercise judgement as to how that framework should be applied to the different young people, with diverse backgrounds and abilities, in order to meet the different educational aims outlined above. Flexibility is essential.

Such expertise requires continuing professional development, shaped predominantly by the perceived needs of the teachers and promoted mainly from within the teaching profession where the expertise largely abides.

The changing system: the need for partnerships

The so-called system of education and training from 14-18, as that has evolved in recent years, is bewildering. Indeed, it is no longer a system governed by the same legal and funding frameworks. There are: 11-18 schools; 11-16 schools; University Technical Colleges 14-18; Sixth-Form Colleges; Tertiary Colleges; Further Education Colleges; Private Training Centres; Youth Service. Half the secondary schools are maintained by the Local Authority. The other half (Academies and Free Schools) are under contract to the Secretary of State. The latter have sponsors, very often chains of academies which are businesses seeking profit either through directly running the schools or from selling educational services. Here there are parallels with the privatisation of the National Health Service. The 94 Sixth Form Colleges are, like the FE Colleges, incorporated institutions which, amongst other things, have to pay VAT; their students (over 150,000 of them) are funded at a lower rate than years 11 students in schools 18. Too often forgotten is the Youth Service, which, despite its vital service to many young people (being for some the one opportunity to return to learning), suffered most from recent education cuts 19.

There are many problems arising from this fragmentation of the system:

• unequal funding of students doing the same courses in different institutions;

• lack of the expertise and resources required for teaching some courses (e.g. there are 500 secondary schools without a qualified physics teacher);

• unequal distribution of well-informed IAG;

• small 6th forms even though they produce poorer results on a smaller range of subjects at greater cost;

• competition between institutions rather than the collaboration needed.

In addition, the constant re-branding of apprenticeships (once seen as the development of excellence in a craft, guided and assessed over time by a master-craftsman, within a covenant between employer and apprentice) has devalued its meaning.

This calls for a thorough review of 14-18 provision – perhaps, as in the case of qualifications, an independent Commission to make recommendations, in the light of evidence and research, because no one school can go it alone. Local collaborative learning partnerships (embracing schools, colleges of F.E., universities, employers, youth service, training providers, and voluntary bodies) should be established to enhance lifelong learning, with shared administrative posts, funding, professional development, IAG, subject expertise and links to community. Such partnerships would be more local than Local Authorities, but local authorities would be needed to create them, to ensure appropriate funding, and to support regional as well as local collaboration. There were, under the last Government (stimulated by the introduction of the new 14-19 Diplomas) many examples of such partnerships, making possible (for example) technical and engineering courses in consortia of schools with the local college and with local employers. Over 100,000 young people between 14 and 16 take a substantial part of their curriculum at FE colleges where there are the resources (e.g. workshops, trainee restaurants and kitchens) and the experts (e.g. qualified craft persons) for the more practical and technical studies which are routes through to apprenticeships, higher education and educational engagement.

However, more radical solutions are now being proposed, namely, a return to a middle school system in which the ages of transfer are 9 and 14. At 14, students would be able to move into one of four pathways, each possibly (but not necessarily) located in a distinct institution, namely, (i) technical (e.g. the UTCs); (ii) liberal arts (the so-called academic subjects); (iii) sports and creative arts; (iv) career pathway, combining basic academic subjects with work-based apprenticeships and off-the-job education and training 2. Should such a proposal be implemented, then the chief sufferers could be the 94 Sixth Form Colleges which have been one of the most successful elements in the comprehensive system – achievements which rarely find a voice in the big debates.


To ensure education for all, not just the academic minority:

• ask what counts as an educated 18 year old in this day and age;
• develop a broader vision of learning (e.g. practical as well as ‘academic);
• ensure an independent, well-informed and professional IAG for all from age 14;
• get rid of high stakes testing and national examinations at 16;
• provide a system of accountability based on the broader aims of education;
• formulate a national framework, leading to an overarching Diploma at 18, which provides several pathways in response to different learning needs and aspirations;
• respect teachers’ expertise in learning and curriculum, and ensure continuous professional development to create and protect that expertise;
• stop fiddling with qualifications until a National Commission recommends a system accepted by employers, higher education, etc.;
• create the partnerships between schools, sixth form colleges, further education, youth service, higher education and employers so that the broad aims might be achieved for everyone;
• ensure equal funding for students on similar courses, whatever the institution.

1 Adonis, A., 2012, Education, Education, Education,
2 Baker, K., ed, 2013, 14-18: A New Vision for Secondary Education, London: Bloomsbury
3 Hadow Report, 1926, The Education of the Adolescent, London: Board of Education
4 See, for example, Smithers, A., 2013, ‘Making 14-18 education a reality’, in Baker (2013) op.cit.
5 See, for example, Hagel, A., 2012, Social Trends and Mental Health: introducing the main findings, London: Nuffield Foundation
6 Lammy, D., 2012, Arising from the Ashes
7 House of Commons Select Committee on Youth Service, 2010, London: Stationery Office
8 Smth Report, 2004, Making Mathematics Count, London: The Stationery Office, p.93
9 Royal Society of the Arts, 1986, Education for Capability, London: RSA
11 Mansell, W., 2007, Education by Numbers: the tyranny of testing, London: Politico
12 See Smith Report op cit
13 See Pring, R., 2013, forthcoming, ‘Another reform of qualifications: but qualifying for what?’, Political Quarterly
14 Tomlinson Report, 2004, Curriculum and Qualifications Reform, London: DfES. See also Tomlinson, M., 2013, ‘The qualifications’ in Baker, op.cit.
15 See Assessment Research Group, 1999, Assessment for Learning: beyond the black box, University of Cambridge School of Education
16 see Stenhouse, L., 1975, Introduction to Curriculum Development and Research, London: Heinemann, ch..
17 Baker, K., op.cit, p.23; Brockmann, M., Clarke, L. and Winch, C.Winch, C., 2011, Knowledge, Skills and Competence in the European Market, London: Routledge
18 Igoe, D. and Kewin, J., 2013, Creating a level playing field in sixth form education, Sixth Form Colleges Association
19 See Pring, R., 2012, Life and Death of Secondary Education for All, London: Routledge, pp.83-4
20 Baker, op.cit, p.20, 21, 27-42