Taking back the bac

Martin Allen

It is not surprising that the knee jerk decision by Michael Gove to introduce league tables based on retrospective performance in his five ‘English Bac’ subjects has been met with angry responses from headteachers.  The Heads are not just annoyed about the way that Gove has sprung this decision on them; many of them run schools where changes in the way in which GCSE performances are measured will result in them tumbling down the league tables.  Since 2004, when New Labour reduced the size of the compulsory curriculum at KS  4, many Heads have run down provision in Modern Foreign Languages to just a trickle;  this has also, to a lesser extent, been the case with humanities. At the same time, knowing that they could include them in league tables, schools  have  introduced Applied GCSEs or BTEC style courses which formally count for several GCSEs — branded as ‘soft’ by the Schools  Minister  and his admirers at the Daily Mail   www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1346622/Michael-Gove-The-traditional-way-sound-education.html

As well as being concerned with their own immediate interests and the consequences that sliding down the table has for their salaries; we can only hope that Headteachers; but also the organisations that represent them, use this as an opportunity to reopen the debate about what the compulsory curriculum should be made up of  and how a ‘broad based’ curriculum can be accessible to all students.  For example, avoiding a situation where, as may be the case in some inner-city schools, EAL students struggle to negotiate their way through French grammar on Friday afternoon, does not mean that a rethought foreign language element could not be part of a core curriculum.

Demands for a baccalaureate have generally been associated with progressive reformers. The aim being to replace, or at least reduce the importance of traditional subject certification, especially at A-level.  The AQA examination board also gained approval for its own baccalaureate in 2008. Candidates, who take it on top of three A-levels, do an extended essay, 100 hours of personal development activity and an AS-level in critical thinking, citizenship or general studies.

Rescuing   the baccalaureate from reactionaries like Gove necessitates developing and promoting curriculum alternatives.  If after a decade of grinding through New Labour’s ‘standards agenda’ this does finally begin to happen, then Mr Gove might have done us all a favour.

3 thoughts on “Taking back the bac

  1. “The Heads are not just annoyed about the way that Gove has sprung this decision on them; many of them run schools where changes in the way in which GCSE performances are measured will result in them tumbling down the league tables.”

    “…schools have introduced Applied GCSEs or BTEC style courses which formally count for several GCSEs — branded as ‘soft’ by the Schools Minister and his admirers at the Daily Mail”

    I presume the reference to the Daily Mail is to ridicule the notion of some courses as being ‘soft’. My own experience of teaching (10 years and counting) is that the ‘equivalency courses’ take far less time to complete and are less demanding for students than ‘traditional’ assessments. For example, at my school the “OCR National in ICT” is a compulsory course. One GCSE’s ‘worth’ of the OCR is supposed to take 90 hours to complete. In fact we deliver it in about 57 hours over 2 years. 97% of students pass the course in comparison to the 70-80% pass rate we obtained with the preceding GCSE ICT qualification which took around 140 hours to deliver. The appeal of the OCR National to League table climbing Heads is obvious. My experience of ‘teaching’ the OCR National is more dispiriting. As assessment is 100% coursework I spend my time directing students to produce the evidence required to meet assessment objectives rather than teaching any new skills. The skills that are actually needed by students are the same as those used at KS3. More able students view the course with disdain. Meanwhile, poorly motivated students are given detentions or ‘catch up’ sessions where teachers micromanage the production of their coursework tasks. Most members of the department come in with students during the holidays to get coursework done. At the end of the whole process students that produced coursework without cajoling get the same qualification as students who needed to be coerced and micromanaged to meet deadlines. Without a terminal exam, the laziest student can pass provided the class teacher is willing to virtually dictate work to students in ‘catch up’ sessions. Coursework is marked and returned to students so they can correct errors/omissions before resubmitting. Heads know this and so there is great pressure on all teachers delivering 100% coursework assessments to deliver 100% pass rates by whatever means possible regardless of the ability of students.

    At our school we also offer BTECs in PE and Performing Arts. To date, no student has failed either of these courses. Our average point score per student has risen from about 440 to about 490 since these courses were introduced. Frankly, these BTEC and OCR National are nothing like as difficult for students to pass as courses with terminal examinations. I get the idea that not all people are great at examinations but vocational courses (‘vocational’ in UK education is euphuism for assessed by coursework regardless of the actual vocational course content) are an invitation for schools to boost league table positions without imparting any knowledge to students by the mechanism of teachers precisely directing the production of coursework to meet narrow assessment objectives. Heads that have valued league table positions above the futures of their students deserve all they’ve got coming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s