Back to the grammar school

Martin Allen   Education for Liberation   Issue 5 April 2012  (

Since coming to office Michael Gove has set out clear proposals for learning and the curriculum. No more so than for the upper secondary years. Most significant is the emphasis on traditional academic learning – the 2010 White Paper and the more recent National Curriculum Review documents argue for a more subject and more content-based approach.

By implication this not only means moving away from the ‘transferable knowledge and skills’ style of learning criticised in the National Curriculum Review; but also rejecting the idea that the curriculum should represent a variety of viewpoints, not to mention different cultural traditions in favour of one where knowledge is clearly defined, fixed or ‘final’- and also hierarchical with some subjects considered more important than others. Another way of seeing this is as a move from a commitment to a comprehensive school curriculum, to one based on the post-war grammars – something close to Gove’s heart.    

Gove intends that the school curriculum should reflect a particular cultural heritage: ‘I believe very strongly that education is about the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next… The facts, dates and narrative of our history in fact join us all together. The rich language of Shakespeare should be the common property of us all’ was how he explained this at Westminster Academy (06/09/10), complaining ‘nearly 90% of students couldn’t name a British Prime Minister of the 19th Century’. Schools Minister Nick Gibb added that all children ought to have read a Dickens novel by the time they are eleven! (Independent 06/012/12)

The new curriculum priorities will be reinforced through the centrality of the ‘English Baccalaureate’–not the baccalaureate once associated with progressive reformers – but a wrap-around qualification incorporating 5 GCSEs from tightly prescribed areas: English, maths, history/geography, science and a modern language. Serving as a new A-list of subjects, measuring school performance levels by E-bacc results now replace pass rates of over 60% for five GCSEs in many inner-city comprehensive schools with single figure performances.

The ideological thrust behind Gove’s curriculum offensive is also evident in his determination to restore GCE A-level as the ‘gold standard’ exam in the way that it used to be. Both A-level entries and A-level passes have risen to unprecedented levels – causing a backlash from a number of elite private schools and leading to allegations of ‘dumbing down’. One consequence has been the creation of alternative ‘elite’ qualifications like the Cambridge Pre-U. Cambridge and the LSE have also published ‘B’ list subjects considered ‘undesirable’ for their admissions criteria. Gove has unashamedly identified himself with this lobby and has backed the Pre-U, but he has also set out clear ideas about how A-level should be restored to its former glory.

Gove also wants to re-establish the division between academic and vocational learning. Qualifications like BTECs will no longer be given equivalent status in league tables unless they adopt the type of grading used by academic qualifications and increase the amount of external assessment. GCSE courses starting from this September, will also be ‘linear’ – with exams at the end of the two year course, thus removing the opportunity for students tore-sit. Addressing the examination watchdog Ofqual (, Gove confirmed his disdain for ‘modular’ learning, where students ‘absorb knowledge and then forget it’. (As if this is not notoriously what students who have crammed for traditional written examinations have not always done!)

Modularised examinations played an important role in New Labour reforms of the upper secondary curriculum, not only providing greater accessibility, but also as a way of linking academic and vocational qualifications. Both the number of entries and the number of passes increased dramatically, but increased pass-rates led to accusations of ‘dumbing down’, ‘grade inflation’ and universities complaining they could not separate the ‘exceptional’ applicants from those just ‘very good’.

Some of these concerns were addressed by the introduction of the A* A-level grade but, for Gove, the problem is still that too many students are doing well! More to the point, too many students are succeeding in new ‘soft’ subjects rather than established ones. It is certainly true that the curriculum may have become ‘bite-sized’ but research about whether examinations are easier than they were has continued to be inconclusive. What is often disregarded is that because of decreasing opportunities in the labour market, young people have been working harder. Accusations about falling standards are hardly what they want to hear.

Gove was given an early Christmas present when the Daily Telegraph (08/12/11) published accusations about examiners giving too much help to teachers attending their briefings. Any teacher or lecturer who has attended these types of meetings knows that they are primarily a forum for advice about exam technique rather than for improving students’ understanding of the subject. Maybe these examiners did go too far – though it’s clear from their reported comments, they no longer considered their role as having much to do with improving the general intellect!
Like Gove, the Telegraph had a wider brief. On the same day it publicised its finding, the paper launched another attack on falling standards. Criticising the way that schools ‘push’ pupils into easier qualifications to improve their league table positions, it 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).

Labour operated with what’s called a ‘human capital’ model of education. Blair and Brown claiming the new globalised economy would provide more opportunities for those highly qualified – in other words we could ‘educate our way to prosperity’. This proved a huge misconception as a generation of young people ended up ‘overqualified and underemployed’ as the number of well paid jobs professional and managerial jobs increased at a much slower rate compared to those ‘qualified’ to do them. As social mobility ground to a standstill, education became like trying to move up a downwards escalator – you had to go faster and faster just to stand still.

In comparison, Gove’s policies are designed to bring a tighter social discipline into schools by concentrating on ‘proper’ knowledge and re-emphasising education’s role in social selection. Claiming to protect standards and academic scholarship; but in reality making educational hoops harder to jump through. Universities minister David Willetts concurs. Both ministers agree too many working-class kids have found their way into higher education and should be returned to (now illusionary) apprenticeships and FE colleges whence they have strayed.

In bleak economic times, for many secondary students education becomes a commodified activity – where you make choices about what to study on the basis of a qualification’s ‘exchange value’ rather than how interesting or whether you enjoy it. As individual practitioners we have to respect this; but as the National Union of Teachers and in opposition to Mr Gove’s grammar school arrogance, our task is surely to promote alternatives.

11 thoughts on “Back to the grammar school

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