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British Education Not Fit for Purpose. HMC Report issues Damning Verdict.

British Education Not Fit for Purpose. HMC Report issues Damning Verdict.

by Jon WestleyFebruary 15, 2022

The Background

2021 and 2022 will be remembered predominantly for Covid-19 – but it should also arguably be recognised as the years in which calls for root and branch reform of British education gained traction.

Why it has taken so long for these calls to become pressing is not so hard to understand. It’s a doubled edged sword. Those of us who benefitted from a British education tend to be fiercely protective of it – after all, criticising it, is criticising the very thing that made us who we are to some indeterminate, but probably significant, degree. In that context, perhaps we should not be surprised that so little has been said before now. Why would we want to criticise the “gold” standard educational system and qualifications that defined our chances in life? Who wants to admit that their education has become in today’s post-modernity an also-ran? An anachronism…. Who wants to accept that we are not half as well educated, or our children are not half as well educated, as we think we and they are…

Of course it is not so simple. The changes and consternation has never been far from the surface. We have seen it, for example, in seemingly endless disagreements on what best to do with students between age 14 and age 16.  Debates have raged for at least three decades on the benefits of judging children on coursework versus examinations, with the corollary evolution from O Levels, to CSEs, GCSCEs and BTECs the result. For many the system today is fairer – for others a complete muddle and sticking plaster compromise. Only, perhaps, A Levels have remained (relatively) unscathed – the true crown jewels and gold standard qualification, globally, as well as at home. BTEC, its newer sister qualification/course of study, so the argument goes, is important, but not that important. 

The aim of new T Levels is, of course, designed to address this. A levels and T levels will hold equal weight, one in academic study, the other in technical and professional study. They will both be gold standards – both be prized by universities and, in the case of T Levels, be highly prized by business and industry too.  Where that leaves the older BTEC qualification is still up in the air – but what is now clear is that BTEC offers countless areas of study that T Levels do not – and British education and the lives of students will be damaged if we do not drastically increase the scope of T Levels – or retain BTECs. If we retain BTECs, the argument goes, it will be yet another sticking plaster on a broken system and perpetuation of muddle. The whole point of T Levels is to create a gold standard alternative to A levels – something that BTEC critics say the qualification never (for some, quite) achieved.

To date in the UAE, no one has published the major report on the state of British education produced by the Headmasters’ & Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), the professional association of Heads of the world’s leading independent schools. The organisation numbers 298 members in the UK, 50 international members and 13 associates. The UAE is significantly represented with international members of the HMC including:

The report, published below, makes uncomfortable reading. But the findings will chime with many educators on the front line and many parents – and students. We think it deserves to be published in full and you will find it below.

The report is not alone in demanding change in British education. The Times Commission is demanding a complete reinvention of education – and “big” names in politics, including many of those involved in developing the system itself, including Sir John Major, Lord Baker of Dorking, Baroness Morgan and Justine Greening are supporting at least root and branch overhaul of GCSEs. Perhaps only the UK government, in the shape of its Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, is holding the line, dismissing calls for change as, seemingly part of the sedition of wokeness that is (supposedly) corrupting everything important and ‘good’ in life and society:

“Some have been using the pandemic to argue for a different approach, for a reheated so-called ‘progressive’ agenda, to abolish GCSEs for example, which would take our education system back decades…”


“GCSEs [are] a very high-quality exam that is a gold standard and we should be proud of those qualifications.”

For leading educators, parents, students and business and industry leaders, change is needed not because of a woke agenda, but because the world has changed, is changing, and British education needs to urgently catch up. Sticking your neck in the sand simply will not wash any more. For many too, the concept of woke has been corrupted by the right to stifle change and adds, at least as a term of abuse, almost nothing of substance to the arguments on either side. HMC are at pains to say that its report does not represent the views of all members – but statistically the evidence it produces is damning of British education. Worth noting that its report engages with school leaders, teachers, parents, academics, business leaders – almost every part of society except politicians.

So what does its report tell us?

“Leaders show significant concern across sectors (maintained and independent) that both curriculum and assessment are falling short in serving the needs of young people and in developing the core knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values they need.

“Our findings reveal a significant gap between the broad purposes of education and current reality.”

The headlines are many – and it is worth noting that many of the criticisms can be levelled at other international qualifications and courses of study – this is definitively not just an issue in British education:

  • The curriculum is rooted in the past and missing numerous areas that have become critical, including sustainability and multiple areas of technology. Even when they do exist, they are add-ons, not placed centre stage as core subjects.
  • Community, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity are woefully under-leveraged as core skills
  • Examinations are flawed in one or many more (serious) respects – and wholly over emphasised to the detriment of education students in values and skills
  • The British education system is impacting negatively on the mental and physical health of many children
  • Arbitrary control of grade inflation leaves countless children behind
  • The system is designed around selection – not the welfare or education of students. And it is today failing even the employers and universities who demanded it.
  • 96% of school leaders believe that GCSE’s need either reform or abolition. 54% of leaders believe that serious reform of GCSEs is needed – and urgently.

At best, the system is giving students qualifications and helping students acquire knowledge – but almost 60% of school leaders think that examinations are not even the point of education and that the current system is not even giving students the knowledge they actually need. Of those things that students do need, almost no school leaders believe they are being delivered by the current system.  The current system is failing on multiple fronts, with around 9 in 10 leaders believing British education in its current form:

  • does not educate children in critical thinking or decision making
  • does not inspire a love of learning
  • does not inspire self esteem or confidence
  • does not build resilience
  • does not build the skills needed for work
  • does not develop physical and mental wellbeing

Qualifications have become an end in itself, with schools simply conveyor belts in a giant sausage machine where little of perceived value is actually being delivered. Almost 50% of respondents think the relevance of the content being taught is questionable and that it is not delivering opportunities for children to progress in their lives. More than 60% of leaders believe that building self-esteem is a critical part of making education work – but only 3% of leaders think the system gives students that self esteem. Putting this more starkly, education should be building up the confidence of young people – but in reality it is making them feel they have failed, or worse, are failures. Almost 20% of respondents think the current system punishes children.

British education also takes many prisoners. Girls are favoured over boys with a significant gender divide at least at GCSE, the opportunities of those for whom English is a second language are downgraded and the whole system is riddled with inequalities of outcomes for different children. Students are successful – but the focus on limiting grades and grade inflation is labelling them failures. And the cause of the mess? Almost 90% of school leaders believe that the very last people who should be involved in making decisions about education are politicians…


The Report

HMC report - FINAL


Bottom Line? The view

Headmasters' & Headmistresses' Conference calls for change as British education in crisis

That we even thought for a second about publishing this report captures the traps. The truth is that so much in this report captures failings that simply do not apply in UAE schools. Take sustainability as one example. We have, not one, but two schools operating in this field – both outstanding – one IB in the shape of Fairgreen International School and one British in the shape of the Arbor School. Take another example: Oracy. It’s centre stage in Dubai College and Victory Heights Primary School. Take another – the sheer number of happy schools we have in the UAE – schools where happiness is achieved and valued, are many – and arguably in the majority. Our schools are, bluntly, brilliant – we have a genuinely outstanding education system in the UAE.

But… the foundations through which schools operate, however outstanding they are, are at the least imperfect. The deck is stacked. Some of our most outstanding schools openly accept that the price that is paid by children is a measure of unhappiness and impacts on mental health. They do not take this lightly – investment in this area is significant. But the system fights against children. Issues around technical education have yet to be resolved. No schools in the UAE currently teach T Levels for example. Students today are remaining in education until 18 – and attending university is increasingly the norm, not the exception. The focus on examination results is not helping students. The system, and its structures, and the society it serves, at least according to this report, as now, so many others, is in trouble – and our children are paying the price. Change is needed. This is why we believe that this report should be published, shared – and ideally discussed.

It is not to knock education in the UAE – British or otherwise. It is unarguable that the quality of education received by children in the UAE, as a whole, is of an extraordinarily high standard. The calibre of school leadership and teaching faculty ensures that so many of the issues calibrated here are addressed – as much as they can be – and by both schools and our outstanding regulators. Parents, students and educators, as a whole, are genuinely lucky to be here – long ago the time passed where sending children home to study made any sort of sense if the aim was a better education.

But… British education could be so much more if change is embraced before it is too late. The pressures, failures and archaic hang-ups of our system – even if it causes us to question the value of the education we received, must be confronted. We can begin doing this in simple ways. For example, we can stop saying that O Levels were tougher and better – that British education has declined from some golden age. They weren’t – and it hasn’t. The problem is not decline – but standing still in a world that moves faster than we can blink.


Reform of Assessment HMC Presentation October 2021

HMC Schools_Future of Education_Data Tables

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About The Author
Jon Westley
Jon Westley is the Editor of and UK. You can email him at jonathanwestley [at]

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