More young people than ever before are going on to university amid accusations that schools are failing to supply students of the required calibre. Has academe lost touch with what is being taught in schools and could it be doing more to influence what goes on? Simon Midgley investigates.
In recent years there have been signs that schools may not always be producing the quality candidates that universities need.
Mathematics, medical and engineering departments have all expressed concern about the level of university entrants' skills. Algebraic skills need remedial attention and many freshers have no concept of the idea of mathematical proof. Linguists, too, worry that translation skills are not what they were and students have read less classical literature than in the past.
Nick Tate, the chief executive of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, who is to be the chief of the new Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority, says that a comparison of A-level syllabuses in maths, chemistry and English in 1975 with those in 1995 shows a decline in the emphasis on grammatical understanding, both in English and in foreign languages. And there is also evidence that in making courses more accessible to cope with a wider ability range, some A-level syllabuses may have become easier.
So, what is happening? Are universities and schools pulling in opposite directions? Should academe pay more attention to what is going on in schools and try to exert more influence on how subjects are taught?
One reason young people going to university are less prepared than they used to be is that subjects are being taught differently in schools. Under the national curriculum, for example, children have to study a much wider range of mathematical topics than in the past. The subject is now more user-friendly - less difficult if you like. While children have improved in areas such as probability, statistics and geometry, they have got worse in algebra and understanding the notion of mathematical proof. In language teaching the fashion has been to aspire to communicative competence. This stresses oral work with less emphasis than there used to be on exactitude, translation work and reading classical literature.
At the same time Britain has moved from an elite to a mass system of higher education. In the 1940s and 1950s 5 per cent of the population went on to higher education. Over the past five years 32 per cent of the age cohort have gone to university each year. So around 28 per cent of people now entering university would not have done so in the past and their knowledge base may be less secure than that of their predecessors.
Ted Wragg, professor of education at the University of Exeter, says: "Society has to ask itself: 'isn't it better that people who, a few decades ago, would not have attained a single O level are now getting university degrees, even if these degrees are perhaps of modest quality compared with those of their abler contemporaries?' "
Moreover, there has been a marked shift of pupil interest away from the sciences towards the humanities. For several years there have been successive declines in the number of pupils opting to take maths, physics or chemistry at A level (there was a slight rise in maths last year). This, according to Wragg, has resulted in fewer students applying to study those subjects at university, which, in turn, has resulted in fewer science graduates and in fewer physics, maths and chemistry teachers, with commensurately deleterious effects on the teaching of these subjects in schools.
Those opting to study maths and sciences are in many cases coming into universities with lower grades than their predecessors. Subject entry grades in popular subjects such as law and English have meanwhile risen steeply. Wragg says that science and maths departments have been hit by the double whammy of falling applications from students representing a much wider ability range.
So there are demographic and structural changes over which academics have virtually no control. But could they be doing more to influence what is being taught in schools? Margaret Brown, professor of mathematics education at King's College, London, says that mathematicians, engineers and, to some extent, physicists in universities have not attempted to understand the changes that have been going on in schools over the past 20 years.
Perhaps one reason is that comprehensive schools are less close to universities through subject associations than grammar schools used to be. Another is the emergence of a new breed of academics - professors of English, maths and geography education - which has tended to distance the university discipline from the subject taught in schools. But most importantly it is because the pressures on academics to do research and brush up their own teaching skills means that they no longer have time for A-level exam boards or school-based subject association conferences. "It was only because something began to damage the quality of their own life that academics started to get more interested in what was going on in schools,'' Brown says.
Since the collapse of the liberal education consensus in the early 1970s when the results of reforms including comprehensive schooling proved less than impressive, education departments, educational research and, to some extent, universities have been largely discredited in the eyes of government as useful sources of advice.
Since the 1988 Education Reform Act most academics have been mute about schools, although a few have been very vocal. Conservative academics, some of whom are associated with the Social Affairs Unit and the Centre for Policy Studies, have continued to have a top-down influence on the education system. This influence has been exerted by academic members of SCAA and the Teacher Training Agency and by using the media to slam schools.
There are signs that more academics are preparing to put their heads above the parapet once more. Having partly shed their image of being associated with left-of-centre agendas, some of the educational research fraternity are becoming influential again. Politicians of both parties are consulting researchers working in the school effectiveness and school improvement fields. The Institute of Education has been polishing its reputation for academic objectivity and, when the evidence allows, firing off the odd salvo against the standards-are-declining brigade. And some academics, especially mathematicians, show signs of wanting to rebuild the bridges that used to link universities with the schools. At least it is a start.
What the experts say
Peter Mortimore director of the Institute of Education, is a leading expert on school effectiveness, coauthor of Fifteen Thousand Hours, a study of secondary schools, and School Matters, a study of primary schools.
The secondary school study found that good schools had quality leadership, a common culture among the staff and an established system of rewards and responsibilities. The primary study found that some schools did not stretch their pupils sufficiently in the classroom. Mortimore advocated that a range of teaching styles - individual, small group and whole class - should be adopted.
Mortimore, who does not serve on SCAA or the TTA, hopes that some of the more fundamental ideas that do have an effect on what happens in schools emerge from places like the institute, rather than from politically led initiatives imposed by politicians and conservative academic advisers. He attacked the recent Ofsted report into the teaching of reading in 45 inner London primary schools, arguing that not one of its conclusions could be supported by the evidence presented.
Marianne Talbot lecturer in philosophy at Brasenose College, Oxford, is a consultant to SCAA charged with taking forward the work of the National Forum for Values in Education and the Community.
The forum convened 18 months ago in the wake of the murder of the headmaster Philip Lawrence, amid concern that moral values were in danger of being squeezed out of school timetables by the national curriculum.Talbot wrote to Nick Tate at SCAA to express her concerns. He invited her to take part in a national conference, from which the forum emerged. "I am very aware of the knee-jerk relativism that is adopted by people my students' age, who seem to have no grasp of the possibility of moral truth but rather a sense that anything goes," says Talbot.
The forum's purpose is to discover whether there are any values common across society. The prevailing view is that because Britain is a multicultural society there are not. Talbot is keen to emphasise not the differences between people, but their sameness - the fact that we are all human.
The forum has submitted a statement of shared values to SCAA. "I think people have been worried about explicitly saying 'yes, this is what we value'," Talbot says. "One of the things we wanted to do was say to teachers ... these values are not yours, they are ours and children have a right and a duty to understand that."
Talbot believes passionately in the value of education. "I wish more academics would get involved in schools. A lot of academics complain about what comes out of schools and yet take no responsibility whatsoever for what schools provide. That is a shame."
Anthony O'Hear professor of philosophy at Bradford University, is on the council of SCAA and a board member of the TTA.
He is a bete noire of leftward-leaning educationists. In 1988 his pamphlet Who Teaches The Teachers? suggested that teachers should be trained in schools rather than in universities.
He is dismissive of the effective schools movement - "it says things like schools are better when they have effective headteachers and children learn better when they are well disciplined'' - and agrees with Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, that much educational research is "vacuous and beside the point''. O'Hear wonders whether we are getting good value for the Pounds 50 million spent annually on such research.
He feels there are also questions to be asked about the expansion of higher education. Recent complaints from the London Mathematical Society about the inadequate mathematical skills of A-level students and the catastrophic decline in A-level entries in maths and physics, are, he says, cause for concern. A-level entries in other subjects are increasing, as are the percentage of grades at A and B. This suggests, he says, that people are opting for softer subjects and that grade inflation is taking place. "This raises serious concerns for universities."
Education departments in universities - with their professors of maths education, science education and so on - are, he believes, part of the problem. Maths education is a different field of study from the study of mathematics. "You often find when curriculum committees are set up they include the professor of maths education not the professor of mathematics.
"This concept of education interposes itself and gets in the way. It tends to look to things that may not be relevant to the teaching of the subject and actually undermine it - concentration on issues such as the sociology and psychology of maths rather than on maths itself."
David Reynolds professor of education at the University of Newcastle, is one of the first in this country to research what makes a good school.
Well known for his review, commissioned by Ofsted, of world comparisons of educational achievement and for his project into what makes nations educationally effective, Reynolds's work has been featured on Panorama - in a programme on what makes Taiwanese schools more successful than British ones.
He is now interested in seeing whether schools can learn anything from organisations such as air-traffic control systems, which have to land 100 per cent of planes every day, and nuclear power stations, which are not allowed to fail. "I want to move beyond the study of relatively good towards the almost absolutely good, as close as possible to the best countries and as close as possible to the best organisations,'' he says.