Turning the Tables?


The publication of the 2011 league tables sees a substantial increase in the amount of data on school performance – in particular, figures for ‘low’, ‘medium’ and ‘high performers.’ This year’s tables also include more statistics for the English Baccalaureate – with many inner city multi-cultural schools finding that despite continuing to improve their GCSE results, they are back in single figures for E-bacc entries and particularly E-bacc passes.

If Michael Gove originally emphasised that the E-bacc is just one measure of attainment; this is not how his favourite newspaper The Telegraph sees it. With only 21.6% of students from state schools being entered for the 5 E-bacc subjects – and only 16.5 % passing, it complains that ‘eight in ten students are being steered away from tough academic GCSEs.’ (www.telegraph.co.uk/education/leaguetables/9041349/GCSE-league-tables-pupils-shunning-tough-subjects.html)     

In fact extolling the values of post-war grammar school education has continued to be one of the Education Secretary’s most enthusiastic activities and Gove is gradually imposing this on all schools as the true indicator of academic success. The Telegraph goes further still, however, welcoming this as a return to the ‘old school leaving certificate’ (awarded to those who ‘matriculated’ from the pre-war grammar schools).

If Gove’s ‘traditionalism’ is a key focus of the White Paper The Future of Teaching, it has also been central to the new National Curriculum proposals for Key Stage 4, where the E-bacc subjects form a new ‘core’. It’s  also the driving force behind the proposals for replacing ‘modular’ assessment with linear end of course exams, his attacks on ‘resits’ and his insistence that particular GCSE  subjects should include marks for punctuation and spelling.   

But Gove is  launching  a more general ‘curriculum war’ – undermining the  comprehensive idea that teachers should develop a type of learning that meets the needs of their students and  which  tries to relate to the lives they lead, allowing teachers not only to innovate, but also to cross traditional subject boundaries. Gove is not only specifying which subjects should be taught but also the content – most apparent in history where, disturbed about young people’s   apparent lack of knowledge about their national heritage, he wants a return to a ‘Kings and Queens’ curriculum.

Labour have attacked Gove’s attempts to narrow definitions of ‘success’. Stephen Twigg arguing that the E-bacc will ‘crowd out’ other subjects not part of it.  However, Labour didn’t do its cause any favours by reducing the compulsory core curriculum to ‘basics’ and   encouraging the growth of ‘vocational alternatives’ at key stage 4.  It was Labour’s box-ticking ‘standards agenda’ that also destroyed teachers professional autonomy and allowed Gove to be able to claim that he is restoring it.

Gove and the Tories accuse Labour of ‘dumbing down’ learning – and worse still, diverting ‘talented’ working class students into easier and less challenging subjects. Turning it into a mandatory requirement will inevitably mean that passes in E-Bacc subjects will increase.  Even if it may now be harder to for them to do so – though there is no conclusive evidence that today’s exams are any easier – millions of young people and thousands of teachers will learn how to jump through these new examination hoops.

Will having the ‘proper’ education Gove insists on enable the increased social mobility that the Tories say it will?  In a stagnant job market and with demand for places at top universities hugely disproportionate to the supply of those available, the answer is no!  Like Labour before, the Coalition faces unsolvable contradictions.  For most young people education will continue to be like trying to move up a downwards escalator – running faster and faster, but finding you are barely standing still.

Meanwhile – unsurprisingly given tripled fees, overall applications to English universities are down by 8.7% but particular subjects and particular institutions will be down by much more, leading to redundancies, mergers and closures, even if the number of applications from 18 year olds appears to have held its own.

However, at the top of the university tree, government now allows institutions that compete for AAB grade A-level applicants to expand, increasing the emphasis on academic cramming all down the line.

Higher education presents a model of independent institutions competing on their various specialist course options that Gove wants to see replicated in schools that are becoming independent of Local Authorities. Soon he will have real vouchers for them in place of the virtual voucher represented by uni’ fees.

Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley

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