John Marriott: The competitive world of education

A grammar school down south has been recently shamed into back tracking on a decision to cherry pick which of its Sixth Formers it officially enters for A levels. It doesn’t surprise me at all with the emphasis on league tables that has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. It’s largely a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world out there in today’s secondary education, both for students, parents and competing schools.

When I was still teaching in the 1990s my comprehensive school operated more or less an open door for students wishing to take their studies further than GCSE. This was certainly not the case with all local secondary schools.

It was common knowledge that at least two, possibly more, ‘successful’ local comprehensives, insisted that a student achieved at least a B in a subject at GCSE to continue to study it at A level. One of the schools even allegedly had a ploy to weed out certain students as early as the end of Year Nine, suggesting that they try their luck elsewhere. For 11 plus, read 14 plus?

Although some Heads of Department at my school occasionally allowed students with a grade as low as a D at GCSE to ‘have a go’ at A level, I took the view that, as far as my subject (Modern Foreign Languages – MFLs) was concerned, a student with only a C would struggle if they took the subject at A level. As for a D, forget it.

My advice to students with a C was that, if they were really keen, they had to be aware of my doubts. You see, in football terms, the GCSE was like Division Two ( some might argue it was even lower) whilst the A level was more like the Premier League. Most accepted my advice; but not all – and unfortunately my prediction invariably proved correct.

Most students aren’t stupid. To get a good grade in a cumulative subject like MFLs requires a great deal of natural ability as well as hard work, with the emphasis on the former. Without that, it’s an uphill struggle. No wonder that numbers taking MFLs at A level have been declining for years, when there appear to be easier options available.

Now I know it’s a while since my pedagogic skills graced the classroom and some may think that these skills were honed in Jurassic Park. But those of us operating in the 80s and 90s didn’t get it all wrong. The mistake some of us made was to succumb to the philosophy of ” they shall all have prizes”. Life isn’t like that.

So, instead of agonising about results and dumbing down exams; indeed continuing to insist that A levels are the only game in town, we should turn our attention to offering students courses and qualifications that really mean something, particularly in the world of work. I know that this isn’t the first time I’ve been banging on about horses for courses?

You probably know what’s coming next and it begins with “Tomlinson”. Even some of our major public (aka private) schools are now encouraging their charges to consider vocational qualifications. When it comes to success they don’t often get it wrong. We need real accountable leadership to achieve the sea change that is required. We could start by going back to “full fat” Local Education Authorities (LEAs) instead of the “semi skimmed” varieties we have today.

We need bodies that are democratically answerable to the communities they serve. What we do not need are ever more privatised LEAs, which is what so called “Academy Chains” really are, indulging in a self styled beauty contest to attract parents and students alike (and, like many universities, providing their ‘Leaders’ with salaries that would make many eyes water).


John Marriott is a former Lib Dem county councillor for Hykeham. A former Head of Languages at the North Kesteven School, he represented Hykeham Forum Division on the Lincolnshire County Council from 2001 to 2017. From 1987 to 2011 he was a member of the North Hykeham Town Council and also served for 18 years on North Kesteven District Council, finally standing down in 2007. He has lived in Hykeham since 1977.