Michael Gove and ‘Reforming Key Stage 4 Qualifications’
Despite his polished performance in the Commons – in the absence of any real Labour opposition – Michael Gove is not ‘modernising’ the qualification system at all. Neither do his proposals have anything to do with improving ‘international competitiveness’. On the contrary, Gove is continuing the Tory Right’s obsession with protecting the ‘standards’ of the few from the aspirations of the majority – attempting to restore an educational agenda thought to have been discarded long ago. His policies, if implemented, can only make schools more unequal still.
In the Commons Gove spun his policies as a solution to the ‘dumbing down’ and ‘grade inflation’ that he argues took place under New Labour as modules and retakes made learning ‘bite-sized’ as schools shopped around for examinations their students could pass with awarding bodies anxious to increase profits by making sure these were available. Gove has already instructed Ofqual to ensure ‘comparative outcomes’, effectively capping increases in performance. Having stopped vocational courses being included in league tables from 2014, he proposes a single awarding body, selected by ‘competition’, for each core subject.
Nobody condones these examination board practices or the way schools introduced new courses solely to improve their position in league tables, but even if the current GCSEs are different to what exams were in Gove’s day, there’s no consistent academic research evidence to show they are easier. A key issue ignored by Gove and the Tories is that unlike in the past where qualifications were restricted to the few, in the absence of real employment opportunities, most young people now consider gaining good exam grades essential labour market labour currency that can only improve their place in the ‘jobs queue’. In a slack labour market however, employers also know they can recruit well qualified (now ‘overqualified’) young people for even ‘basic’ jobs.
In portraying himself as a ‘moderniser’ Gove looks to the ‘rigorous’ education practices of high performing economies like Singapore and South Korea for inspiration – the 2011 Experts’ Report on National Curriculum highlighting examples and arguing for a more ‘knowledge based’ rather than ‘skills-based’ curriculum. But this type of comparative analysis is highly selective (see Morris, 2012 Journal of Education Policy Vol 27. No1 ) with none other than Sir Michael Barber, architect of many ‘school improvement’ reforms during the last two decades, warning about the dangers of copying policy on the hoof (Guardian 22/8/12). Barber suggests some of the countries cited by Gove could also ‘learn from us’. Besides, do we really want the type of rote learning and fact regurgitation that is associated with Asian Tiger school systems? There are other reasons for the high growth rates of these economies that have little to do with their education programmes!
More genuine ‘modernisers’, like the authors of the 2004 Tomlinson Report, argue that with most now continuing in full-time learning, major assessment at 16 is no longer necessary. However, while the Tories will line up the CBI and the Institute of Directors to back their proposals, some in their own ranks don’t agree. Lord Baker claims the importance of practical learning and ‘soft skills’ will be undermined further. Gove’s proposals will certainly impinge on Baker’s University Technical Colleges (UTCs), a new technical or ‘middle’ stream offering vocational specialisation from age 14. On the other hand, with casualised unskilled work continuing to grow and the economy drifting into permanent decline, the Tories maybe realise they don’t need to educate everybody and the sort of divisions described below may be highly appropriate.
Hostility from the Liberal Democrats may have prevented Gove from officially bringing back the O-level and CSE divide – clearly his original intention. However, Gove, who in his Commons speech had the audacity to argue it was ‘tiered’ GCSE papers that caused division, has outmanoeuvred Clegg and used the already existing English Baccalaureate as the Trojan Horse for scrapping the GCSE and establishing new ‘English Baccalaureate Certificates’ (EBCs) with teaching due to start in 2015.
This will inevitably intensify division between E-bacc subjects and others. In the run up to the changes, schools will concentrate resources on the ‘golden five’. The ‘higher standards’ of EBCs will be more difficult to achieve a pass in than it is to reach a grade C for GCSE and will be used as templates for other subjects. EBCs can be expected to have final exams rather than modules and there will be, we are told, an emphasis on spelling and punctuation. There’s no suggested timetable for other subjects to be upgraded, so we have to assume the ‘easier’ and ‘inferior’ GCSEs continue alongside EBCs.
The Consultation document avoids being drawn on how exactly grades will be allocated, or if GCSE-style grading will be continued. The Mail on Sunday (16/09/12) claimed that only ‘one in ten’ would get ‘grade 1’ and Gove will certainly give Ofqual a leading in role in EBC regulation. Neither is there any indication that league tables will not continue. On the contrary, schools will be judged on performance in the E-bacc.
Of course, Gove has been quick to state that the EBCs will be for ‘everyone’ and that the ‘small group’ of students who don’t pass them at the end of year 11 will be expected to do so in post-16 education. More significantly, students who are not entered for the qualification will be provided with a ‘Statement of Achievement’, setting out ‘strengths and weaknesses in each subject.’ In fact, the vast majority of students currently don’t achieve the 5 E-Bacc passes by the end of year 11 and a third miss the five GCSEs. The proposals will create new divisions in school sixth forms, between schools and between schools and FE colleges. Reducing motivation to stay on, the ‘statements of (non) achievement’ will occupy the same role as the old ‘leaver’s certificate’. Nick Clegg deserves to be hung out to dry at his party conference for signing up to this!
Campaigners, defenders of comprehensive education and teacher trade unions must get to grips with the biggest shake up in secondary education for 25 years. We should accept that GCSE wasn’t perfect but we can still defend some of its original principles while opposing the way it was turned into high stakes testing linked to league tables and the way teachers have drilled students to meet their targets and protect their jobs. Rather than just playing with the ‘fine detail’ however, the consultation period should be used to promote real alternatives, for example a general diploma for all, that will win the support and gain the confidence of young people and their parents.