Michael Gove reduced the role of coursework and made exams 'more demanding'.flickr

Varsity columnist Connor MacDonald recently penned an article entitled, “The British education system has bigger problems than tuition fees”. MacDonald is correct – tuition fees are just one aspect of deeper, systemic shortcomings in British education. Yet his unfortunately partisan focus on Labour’s policies, rather than on recent government actions, is a misleading critical framework that fails to address the reasons for the deficiencies in our education system.

Clearly, reducing or abolishing tuition fees is only effective when incorporated into a broader agenda for reform. However, MacDonald fails to acknowledge that neither Labour nor the “student left” is arguing otherwise. Labour’s manifesto pledged to abolish tuition fees as part of a more comprehensive reforming programme that emphasised the importance of early-years education and the need for adequate funding of state schools. Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary, is a particularly vocal advocate for early intervention.

Besides, the debate around tuition fees is totally legitimate. The idea that abolishing tuition fees would render university education “a handout to the well-off” is a complete fallacy; factors contributing to the widening gulf between the acceptance of rich and poor students to university are undeniably complex, but inflated tuition fees play a crucial part. It is a trend that I witnessed first-hand at my local comprehensive: numerous bright, capable pupils, increasingly concerned by crippling debt, were ultimately deterred from applying altogether. Abolishing maintenance grants has put poorer students at an even greater disadvantage – a university student receiving the highest maintenance loan will now be saddled with upwards of £50,000 in debt, disregarding inflation, after completing a three-year degree. To suggest that this has no effect on an individual’s decision to apply is entirely misguided.

“We need a system that enhances the myriad skills and capabilities of every pupil”

Moreover, while the criticism of “ridiculous and unproductive obsession with standardised tests” is valid, the article fails to mention the trend in Conservative policy that has placed even more emphasis on standardised testing. As Education Secretary, Michael Gove implemented sweeping changes that reduced the role of coursework and made examinations, in his own words, even “more demanding”; his successor, Nicky Morgan, even proposed the introduction of tests for pupils as young as seven years old.

Yet the most notable omissions concerned two of the greatest obstacles to equitable education: Britain’s extensive network of private schools and persistent cuts to state education by Conservative governments. The former perpetuates a marketised education system where the wealthy can literally pay for the social advancement of their children, and the latter serves to put state-educated pupils at an even greater disadvantage. On this point, the problem is not just that there are inadequate incentives for would-be teachers; it is that, increasingly, schools cannot afford to employ them. Adequate funding should be a top priority for any government and represents the first step towards improving our education system.


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Mountain View

The British education system has bigger problems than tuition fees

A fundamental reimagining of the current “one-size-fits-all” model of assessment is also of paramount importance. The EBacc’s focus on “core” subjects marginalises equally beneficial creative subjects. Obviously, educating our population to be literate and mathematically adept is imperative, but this does not justify the delegitimisation of creative pursuits. While most of us at Cambridge likely excelled in the “core” subjects that constitute the bulk of the university’s curriculum, there are plenty of students around Britain who do not; rather than perpetuating a hierarchy of disciplines according to academic rigour, we should be creating a system that enhances the myriad skills and capabilities of every pupil.

Finding an alternative to standardised testing, perhaps modelled on the Finnish system of teacher-led assessment, is crucial in this regard, but only in the context of broader revision of what constitutes successful educational development. Equally, devolving power to give greater local autonomy over education is a vital move, but the extent to which this has proved successful under academisation is highly questionable: where power should have shifted to respond to localised opinions and concerns, many schools – including the one I attended for my GCSEs and A-levels – have found themselves beholden to faceless, national academy chains with scant incentive to provide school-level autonomy.

Evidently, there are innate flaws in Britain’s education system. Yet critiquing a single feature of the opposition’s manifesto, instead of focusing on the actions taken by government ministers, is not the way to tackle them. After all, Britain has now been administered by Conservative-dominated governments for nearly eight years. Any criticism of the current failures of British education must be directed at those currently in power

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