Wither GCSE?

Martin Allen

Despite Ofqual’s well-crafted explanations, the real involvement of Michael Gove in the GCSE results scandal may never be known. It suits Gove to allow Ofqual to take the flack and it’s clear that he intends to use the dispute to push ahead with his programme of examination reform. Maybe Lib-Dem opposition will stop the reintroduction of O-levels, but it won’t stop Gove seriously revising the format of GCSE so as to make it an O-level by another name.

One of the particular strengths of GCSE is the centrality of ‘criterion assessment’ where students know what they are being judged against and the level they have to reach to secure particular grades.   Gove may balk at officially reintroducing ‘normative assessment’ – where the number who pass or achieve particular grades is restricted by quota; yet when Ofqual says that exam pass rates must be based on ‘comparable outcomes’ with  previous years, what exactly does it mean?

GCSE is not perfect, but over the years has embodied many of the ideas associated with comprehensive education. The fact that it has been used to prop up  a ‘high stakes’ assessment  regime geared to league tables and performance targets – where  a C grade means everything, while a D  counts for nothing – should not  disguise the fact that since its inception the number of entries and particularly the number of passes  has continued to multiply. This, is Gove’s real problem, but it’s not one for teachers or parents and certainly not students.

With Gove now staying on as Education Secretary to ‘finish the job’ campaigners and reformers must move beyond the immediate issues of the boundary moving and campaign on a broader agenda by, for example:

  • Opposing the notion of ‘dumbing down’ – there is no consistent evidence of a fall in standards. Exams may be different now; but this certainly doesn’t mean they are easier. On the contrary, with the collapse of youth employment opportunities, young people now have no choice but to work harder, often for less.
  • Defending the ‘modular’ syllabuses that have been introduced and which Gove plans to axe. There is clear evidence that students like them, find them accessible and allow them greater choice.
  • Supporting  the right of students to continue to ‘retake’ parts of their course
  • Calling for a restoration of teachers roles as assessors and as the real judge of progress.
  • Ending the ‘high stakes’ culture to which GCSE has become integral and making GCSE/assessment at 16 part of real lifelong learning.
  • Arguing that other policies are needed to help young people secure employment, not just education reform.


One thought on “Wither GCSE?

  1. Patrick Ainley writes

    Actually, I don’t really agree with this as I think that GCSEs as they developed through modularisation, like the Curriculum 2000 reform of A-levels, became more and more compromised by the pressures on teachers – and therefore of teachers on students – to gain league table point scores. This leads to what I call in higher education (where we see the results of all this in schools and FE) a ‘tyranny of transparency’ in which everything is broken down so that students know exactly what to write when and where, resulting in what Deirdre McArdle-Clinton calls ‘capsule education’ (see review on this blog).

    This is facilitated by IT which allows cutting and pasting of ‘bits’ of information so that knowledge and narrative is often lost and it is paralleled by competence-based training (as in NVQs). Together, these both become new forms of cramming (training to memorise and regurgitate in acceptable form) which in preparation for academic examinations continues meanwhile and is intensified. It is what Gove wants to go back to. We need an alternative to this so that, instead of pointing out how hard pupils and teachers are working – new heights of Stanhovitism in pursuit of ever higher ‘standards’, we recognise that they are not necessarily working to any purpose because there is no point in insisting that everything is fine and denying the corrosion of education that has occurred, not only in student instrumental attitudes but the real decline in literacy and numeracy, even though this is not only a result of what has happened in formal education but is a general cultural development. We have to recognise that the cultural context of education has changed so that schools, colleges and universities no longer prepare most people for a future in which fields of practice are collapsing into de- or multi-skilled flexible labour and, in the absence of any viable future for which education would prepare future generations, test-taking becomes a parasitic activity in which the object of change becomes not the world but the individual, ie. a form of social control.

    As Martin has written, Gove recognises this more than many of his critics and aims at restoring a new/old correspondence, going ‘back to the future’ so that (as in the 1950s) only 20% were believed educable to go on to the professional/ managerial positions that are now anyway being rapidly deskilled. However, he has no anwswer for what to do with the remaining 80% who will be failed by his traditional crammed-for exams as tests of literacy that are proxies for more or less expensively acquired cultural capital. He seems to think – like Harold Wilson – that he can have ‘A grammar school education for all’ and the rest can do apprenticeships. However, on this blog Martin and I have enough times pointed out that this route is unviable also as employers do not want apprenticeships. Gove is also trying to return to traditional grammar/ private schooling for a minority in the absence of anything like a widely shared ideology of IQ that existed after the war and was followed until Cyril Burt was finally discredited. Until geneticists come up with a new version, there is a big contradiction in his policies, even if they are realistic in terms of the ‘new correspondence’ – insofaras it exists.

    We should expose this huge open goal perhaps using the current GCSE marking debacle as an opportunity to point to an alternative to Gove’s academic one, as well pointing to the huge open goal/ absence/ contradiction in the Gove-Willett’s approach (because Willett’s also wants to reduce numbers who have gone to unis and the numbers of unis themselves but – as we have noted, as ex MPC-member Blanchflower asked, what else are young people supposed to do?)

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