Dodgy examiners for dodgy exams. But what is our alternative?

Michael Gove has launched an inquiry into the Daily Telegraph’s accusations about examiners giving too much help to teachers attending their briefings. Anyone who attends these type of events, will soon recognise their primary role is about providing information about the techniques required to gain top marks, rather than improving students understanding of the subject. Maybe on these particular occasions, the examiners did go a bit too far – though it’s also clear from their reported comments, that the individuals concerned no longer considered their role as examiners as having much to do with improving the general level of education!

While the Education Secretary quickly congratulated the newspaper for its ‘responsible journalism’, like Gove, the Telegraph has a much wider brief. On the same day as it publicised its finding, the Telegraph launched another attack on the ‘dumbing down’ of education, criticised the way that schools ‘push’ pupils into easier qualifications to improve league table positions. The paper also lambasted schools for spending thousands of pounds on re-sits to improve their students’ university chances (in fact many young people have to pay for re-sits themselves).

It might seem strange that the Telegraph is attacking the privatisation and marketisation of the ‘examinations culture’ – branding it an ‘international money spinner’. Yet In doing this the paper is also giving 100% backing to Gove’s reform programme. In particular, Gove and the Telegraph want to restore the A-level to its former glory, reminding us of the time when the exam had close links with elite universities. For the Tories, A-levels are too easy and there are too many students doing them, the distinction between academic and vocational learning is now too blurred. Gove and his Telegraph supporters are intent on changing both course content and the way that it’s examined – for example by scrapping ‘modules’ in favour of traditional ‘end of course’ exams. It’s also well understood that Gove and the Telegraph consider some subjects more valuable than others and thus should be recognised in that way. For Gove  the true curriculum is of course that of the post-war grammar schools – which was in turn modeled on that of the traditional Public Schools.

Though most exam boards do still remain charities – with the WJEC, where the (now suspended) examiners work, owned by the Welsh Local Authorities, defenders of state education and teacher unions rightly attack the way commercial interests have swept into schools.  Some have now also become increasingly critical of Labour’s ‘standards agenda’ and the way in which ‘school improvements’ in the Blair/Brown days were confused with increased performance in passing tests and exams. As the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) recognises, the alleged corruption in exam boards is a consequence of a system that places ‘too high a premium on exam results and league tables and not enough on actual learning and helping young people get on’. Yet reformers urgently need to publicise their own alternatives for curriculum and assessment. At the moment, Michael Gove is the only show in town

Martin Allen

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