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The UK’s post-Brexit success depends on this generation of school leavers

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With A level and GCSE results on the horizon, NAHT's Paul Whiteman asks whether we should be rethinking secondary qualifications for the post-Brexit world. 

This week, thousands of young people will be awaiting their A level results. The week after, GCSE students will be doing the same. Above all, they and their families will be hoping that their hard work has paid off, and that they get results they can be proud of and that enable them to go further in education, training or employment.

I wish them all the best of luck because after we leave the EU next March, the future is unpredictable.

One thing that is certain is that our future productivity and success in the post-Brexit world depends on the success of the young people who are getting their qualifications this month.

But it doesn’t depend on the grades they get, it depends on the kind of people they are.

They will be the ones who take and create the jobs of the future. Jobs that we haven’t even thought of yet. Jobs that employers won’t be able to fill by flying in talent from overseas. Jobs that require a breadth of skills and not necessarily a narrow band of academic study.

In a world of opportunity, the narrowing of options at A level is a real cause for concern.

As CBI President Paul Drechsler has said, education’s power is to give people not just what they need to operate in today’s workplace, but the spirit of enquiry that allows them to shape tomorrow’s too.

Now that young people study until eighteen, they should be able to choose from a broad range of subjects post 16, some of these might be technical and vocational. But there are more restrictions on the subjects offered post 16 than ever before.

Sixth form funding has fallen sharply since 2010, whilst the expectation that students follow a more academic core of subjects has risen. The pressure of funding, Ofsted, league tables and ministerial pronouncements has meant that a school leader who sticks to their guns and offers a rich variety of subject opportunities is either a financial miracle-worker or a fearless iconoclast.

A core group of rigorous subjects is important, but we need to make sure there is a wider variety and choice beyond them. Young people are individuals and the same choices will not work for all.

Brexit may mean a skills shortage in the UK labour market. It may also mean we’re searching for new and different skills to export around the world.

The most marketable skills could come from anywhere. Currently, the arts are one of our biggest exports, with young designers, musicians, artists and performers representing the best of Britain.

The way things are going, we just won’t be able to offer these students the opportunities that they need and deserve.

Young people should be able to take all sorts of combinations of subjects at A level. Why not take Biology and Art? Why not experiment with subjects like psychology, economics, marketing and law?

But think about how hard it would be for students to make the leap these kind of subject choices and combinations if they’ve only ever had the basic diet of EBacc subjects at GCSE.

With university becoming such an expensive option, A levels and other FE qualifications will become more and more important. For many young people, further education will be the last formal study they will ever undertake. They deserve to spend those years studying things they enjoy and are passionate about. They are far more likely to succeed in life if they do.

Shifting the conversation on accountability is long overdue. Accountability is not the only barrier to a broad range of subject choices, but it is a significant one.

The nature and weight of the accountability system have compelled schools to focus on those areas that are critical as school performance indicators.

The use of narrow data gets in the way of a school’s efforts to meet the needs of the student cohort that it serves and the extent to which this prepares pupils for the future.

A school which puts pupils needs ahead of data could find itself near the bottom of a league table or the top of an inspector’s naughty list.

School leaders should not need to be brave to do what is right for their students.

And with Brexit looming, we can’t wait any longer for change.

This blog by NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman first featured in TES


First published 16 August 2018