Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Standards and Standard Setting and the Post School Curriculum

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Standards and Standard Setting and the Post School Curriculum

Article excerpt


The Higher Education and Training Department's recent Green Paper proposes an ambitious plan for expanding post school education and training by 2030. In combining this overall expansion with the proposal that much of this expansion will take place in the Further Education and Training colleges rather than in universities, the Green Paper represents a radical break with the pattern of provision inherited from the apartheid era. I do not intend here to consider the Green Paper's proposals in any detail. There is already an excellent analysis published by HESA (2011). This paper is concerned with the broader role of standards and standard setting in shaping the expansion of post school education, with particular reference to highly unequal societies such as England and South Africa. It makes two assumptions: one is that standards as measures of how quality in education is judged are in some form an inescapable element in any education system. The second assumption is that it may be useful in assessing the possible consequences of the different interpretations of standards being adopted in South Africa, to draw on the experience of the changing role of standards in how post school provision in England has been developed since the early 1980s. The English case may be of interest to South Africans because the meaning of educational standards, and their role in the expansion of post and upper secondary school expansion in England, has itself been the subject of explicit debate and controversy .

The assumption that all educational policies necessarily involve some idea of standards in terms of which the system and individual institutions are judged to have improved (or not) raises the question of the meaning of standards in education - a notoriously fraught and slippery idea. Until the 1970s the term 'standards' was largely taken for granted in educational debates in England. Standards were either high or low and rising or falling and 'high' standards were associated with the educational institutions in which the majority of pupils were successful in highly regarded examinations. It was assumed that such elite institutions (in England, the fee-charging public schools and state grammar schools) 'set the standards' for others to follow. At the same time, there was no expectation that more than a few of those attending non-elite institutions would reach the standards set by the elite.

The main way that the 'elite' institutions achieved their standards was through being highly selective in the students who they accepted. The idea of standards being 'high' or 'low' was not applied to the education of the majority of pupils; they attended school, but most were not expected to achieve enough to reach any publicly recognised standard. However, this hierarchical and relatively exclusive model of standards was flexible enough to allow a small but steady expansion of the numbers achieving 'high' standards, even in non-elite schools. This slow expansion was supported by a steady increase in educational expenditure and in the opportunities, for students from non-elite schools, at the top the universities.

The prevailing idea of standards was explicitly 'normative'; it limited the proportion achieving the highest grades- 1st class honours degrees and A grades at A level(the examination taken by students staying at school until the age of 18). Thus, high grades were rationed and quality was maintained - albeit it was a distinctly backward-looking concept of quality which was based on the assumption that only a small proportion of each cohort was capable of high achievement.

In considering possible alternatives to this highly traditional view of standards, its 'quality assurance' role should not be neglected. It is difficult to imagine any expansionist policy that is concerned with quality as well as access that does not involve some form of 'normative' concept of standards. It is a feature, in different forms, of even the most equal education systems such as those found in the Nordic countries. …

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