An apprentice electrical engineer under instruction in a cable-finishing factory

Government reforms to the curriculum and exam assessment are out of kilter with good educational practice and the wider skills and competencies that employers’ organisations like the CBI have identified as being a desirable outcome of the education system (We need an alternative to universities, 17 August). To this list can be added the fragmentation of the school system, an obsession with academies and grammar schools, school performance indicators fixed to favour progression to a limited number of universities and the Ebacc, which has undermined the study of art, design and other creative subjects in schools.

In spite of the media’s obsession with A-levels, thousands of students study for BTecs each year and the majority who enter university now do so with a vocational qualification. Many study for higher education qualifications that are vocational and professionally and technically focused, include placements and projects with employers as well as degree apprenticeships. A third of students enter university when they are over 21, having spent time in the workplace, while others combine study with part-time work and caring responsibilities. These students are more debt-averse and the real national scandal is that their numbers and opportunities are declining as a result of high tuition fees in England.

Government reforms to the curriculum and exam assessment are out of kilter with good educational practice and the wider skills and competencies that employers’ organisations like the CBI have identified as being a desirable outcome of the education system (We need an alternative to universities, 17 August). To this list can be added the fragmentation of the school system, an obsession with academies and grammar schools, school performance indicators fixed to favour progression to a limited number of universities and the Ebacc, which has undermined the study of art, design and other creative subjects in schools.

In spite of the media’s obsession with A-levels, thousands of students study for BTecs each year and the majority who enter university now do so with a vocational qualification. Many study for higher education qualifications that are vocational and professionally and technically focused, include placements and projects with employers as well as degree apprenticeships. A third of students enter university when they are over 21, having spent time in the workplace, while others combine study with part-time work and caring responsibilities. These students are more debt-averse and the real national scandal is that their numbers and opportunities are declining as a result of high tuition fees in England.

We used to have an alternative to universities. They were called polytechnics. Unfortunately, they fell victim to the snobbery underpinning the English attachment to an obsolete model of education and were forced to ape universities while being derided as second rate, delivering Mickey Mouse degrees.

This model is yoked to an ill-defined language reflecting a presumptuous set of values. It would be helpful, for example, if it could be explained in what way “top” universities are better than their lesser namesakes, how Oxbridge is better than Wolverhampton, for example, other than that they get first pick of school-leavers. It would also be helpful if we were clear about some of the terms we use. What do we mean by “academic”, “vocational” and “technical”? All of the academics I have ever met have had a strong vocation and used technology. Why insist on such distinctions when it comes to the examination system?

The GCE system (or more accurately its predecessor the School Certificate) was devised to simplify and standardise university admissions procedures in the early 20th century. That it has come to dominate the whole secondary curriculum has done little to benefit either pupils or the national economy. It is simply obsolete and not fit for its assumed purpose.

Fiona Millar is spot on. It will take a huge culture shift to move us to an education system which excites and motivates learners. It will take an even greater shift to move to a system that provides continuing education and training for all for life, rather than one which makes ill-informed and damaging assumptions about ability and aptitude so early on.