So the longest day begins with the news that GCSEs and the secondary National Curriculum are to go.
As Mr Gove’s education reforms have unfolded over the past couple of years many observers have respectfully questioned the extent to which they are based upon genuine research evidence rather than rose-tinted nostalgia for times past.
Today’s policy leak on GCSEs / O levels provides a strong indication of where the balance lies.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Mr Gove’s stewardship of education is the sweeping nature of his reforms.
He didn’t like Local Authorities so the schools are taken away and the money is re-directed to Academies and Free Schools.
He thought some students were insufficiently challenged by the curriculum so a complete curriculum review was ordered.
He didn’t like the modular approach and re-sits so these have been replaced with terminal exams.
He felt schools and teachers were not being sufficiently challenged so the Ofsted ‘satisfactory’ grade was removed and the inspection notice period was reduced.
This radical approach has earned him considerable esteem from members of his own party and sections of the popular press and even led to descriptions of him as ‘a big beast’ and ‘the only true Tory’. Consequently there have been suggestions that he has strong prime minister potential. With such approbation from those who matter most to him, he obviously has little incentive to moderate his approach.
There are two particular drawbacks to major policy change made in haste:
- · the background research is often inadequate or even willfully misinterpreted to support the change
- · the implications of the policy are not fully thought through and planned for
In 1984, faced with the intractable problem of unmotivated young people ‘studying’ for CSE awards of little value, Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government decided the cause of social mobility would be best served by offering every learner the opportunity to reach the highest grades and GCSE was born.
There are not many teachers left in schools today who were pupils in pre-GCSE days and few who have taught CSEs and O levels, so most practitioners cannot speak from experience. Those long enough in the tooth can recall two very different curricula from fourteen and, indeed, from much earlier. For most students, their fate was determined when grouping decisions were made in the first or second year of secondary school, if not by the outcome of the 11 plus exam. The lesson of history should have alerted us to the danger that, with a two-tier system, the upper tier comes to be seen as the one that matters. Now that we are to have no secondary National Curriculum, the ‘second tier’ curriculum could easily come to be regarded as less important.
Supporters of reversion to a two-tier system are, perhaps understandably, those who, like Mr Gove, were themselves successful O level candidates. However, as Andreas Schleicher, the Head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at the OECD and the man responsible for the production of the PISA tables points out, the top 20% of our students do as well as the top 20% anywhere in the world. Hence PISA tables, often quoted as supporting evidence by Mr. Gove, provide no grounds for a narrow focus on greater rigour at the top of the ability range.
Hence a return to the old pre-sixteen divide is a prime example of a policy change which is not supported by evidence and which is likely to have dire consequences in terms of its overall impact. Indeed, with the school leaving age about to rise to eighteen, it is difficult to justify such high profile and costly examinations at sixteen at all. A more carefully planned strategy would surely not invest so much resource in gauging learners’ performance two years before they complete their formal education. With such an ill-conceived and clumsily handled proposal, it is hard to escape the thought that the reason for the change has a lot to do with Mr. Gove’s political ambition.
The act of dramatically throwing away the bathwater can create the impression of a determined and effective man of action. It may take time for this illusion to be shattered with the discovery that the spectacular rush of water obscured the loss of the baby.
Unfortunately, this has already happened with the policy changes listed above (shortage of funds to meet demand for primary school places, a mismanaged and finally aborted National Curriculum review, a focus on memorisation rather than real learning, a teaching force with morale at a seriously low ebb).
We all know that GCSEs are not perfect and there is room for improvement. However, the outcry from the public, education professionals and politicians across all parties has been such that Mr. Gove can be in no doubt about the strength of opposition to a return to a two-tier exam system. Making this change in a cavalier fashion would have serious consequences for our young people and our nation.
This time we need to ensure the water remains in the bath.