Jonathan Gullis is a Stoke-on-Trent North MP.
The coronavirus has tested our education system like never before. The glue that binds it all together (the teachers) have faced the challenge selflessly and have proven their worth over and over again. Their determination to keep our children learning, despite all the hardships of social distancing, is hugely commendable and many families across the country owe them great gratitude.
Our school system, however, has been exposed as flawed in many ways. Given that the pandemic has been a systemic crisis throughout society, it should come as no surprise to us that schools have struggled to cope with it. But just as other areas of society are examining how they might fit into the postcovid world, education also needs to be reformed.
For me, there is no more important candidate for reform than the seven, eight and nine years, also known as Key Stage 3: the early years of secondary education. These years are a basic stage in the development of our children, which I believe we need to reform, so that they adequately prepare children for further education and life in the outside world.
I am a big fan of the school minister, Nick Gibb, and the great work he has done since 2010 to improve standards in schools. The number of schools that Ofsted has considered good or excellent has increased by 20%, from 66% in 2010 to 86% in 2020, benefiting almost two million children. The focus of this success has been to focus on a knowledge-rich curriculum. I want that focus to be maintained.
The core of this new key stage 3 would be the EBacc themes. English, math, and science would each receive four hours of teaching each week, and the humanities (History, RE, and Geography) and foreign languages would have two hours each week. PE and the new CSR would have one hour dedicated to each week.
But in key phase 3, I also think we should introduce the practical skills that will shape our children for life outside the classroom.
To take a few examples: I think it is very important for people to know the basics of accounting, budgeting and finance, as they will have a huge impact throughout their lives. Such practical applications could be incorporated into a revised mathematics curriculum and used to demonstrate the real-world value of mathematics.
At a time when we are all so focused on our health and the health of the nation, another example comes to mind. Inculcating in children a good understanding of diet, cooking, and food science, which could be taught as part of a revised scientific curriculum, would prepare them to take care of themselves as adults. The importance of this type of practical understanding has been highlighted by the pandemic, with the strong link between the weight and vulnerability of people to serious illnesses.
Ensure that at this stage children study a broad and truly modern curriculum and keep their options open, in addition to the core subjects.
It would also have two more aspects on the curriculum: STEM and Creative. STEM, which would consist of subjects such as Engineering and Computer Science, would provide students with a foundation in the type of skills and knowledge increasingly in demand and help them prepare for the modern world. Students would spend two hours a week studying these STEM subjects.
Creativity, which would encompass art, theater, and music, would also have two hours of teaching a week. Offering these two thematic groups as compulsory would recognize the importance of both STEM and the creative sector in the UK economy and open the eyes of students to the many potential careers they offer.
Beyond updating the curriculum to properly prepare our children for the jobs of the future, I also want to see key stage 3 change so that, during the spring term of the 9th grade, all children have to make a formal level 1 examination. In this way, it would be ensured that no child leaves school without any qualifications, which can have a hugely detrimental impact on people’s lives.
Conducting the exam during the spring would allow students to receive time to get advice on their career to help them report on their GCSE options next year. As it is, children need to narrow down their options based on little or no understanding of what they may mean in the coming years. I think it would be very valuable for LEPs, chambers of commerce and local entrepreneurs to come into schools at this stage to discuss with the children the various options available.
This commitment would allow decisions to be made about future studies in the summer in an informed way. It would also help to open your eyes to how many attractive career options there are. In this country we have become astute about the importance of getting a degree and getting into some form of academically focused career. Actually, these types of careers are not the answer for all young people and we need to dispel the myth that they are.
The pandemic has put us all to the test, perhaps nothing more than schools and children. But out of the difficulty comes the opportunity. If the pandemic drives us to examine the functioning of our schools and leads to positive reforms, something good will have come of these exceptional years.