Key Stage 4: what price a campaign?

It’s over 5 years now since Michael Gove’s decision tomichael-gove bow to his critics and retain GCSEs. But despite this humiliating reversal,  Gove, who had arrogantly lectured the education establishment on the need to introduce new English Baccalaureate certificates in key subjects, still managed to impose his educational priorities and undermine much of what was once considered to be ‘the teachers exam’.

He set about replacing modularised assessment allowing student friendly learning and assessment with, where ever possible, a two- year ‘end of course’ traditional written exam, ending ‘tiered’ papers and introducing a new grading system designed to ensure much more differentiation between those students scoring higher marks. All of this has been in the name of ‘rigour’. Though not receiving anywhere as much attention, A-levels have been reformed in similar ways, with AS level no longer being a midway point to allow greater flexibility.

Gove, influenced by US English Literature professor ED Hirsch who argued that American schools have a ‘knowledge deficit’ – with many student, being denied the things ‘they need to know’, also insisted on clear content specifications, outlining very clearly what students should be taught. For example, ‘at least one play by Shakespeare, at least one 19th century novel’, to quote from the original English Literature draft.

Gove also sought to differentiate academic knowledge from practical, applied and vocational learning, publishing plans to prevent ‘GCSE equivalent’ vocational qualifications being counted in school league table scores claiming these are much less demanding academically and require less curriculum time. 

Gove, soon to be sacked as education secretary, moved on to wrecking other things – 5 years is a long time in politics, but students have had to live with his legacy. This summer’s cohort have been the first required to sit the new specifications in all subjects – while schools have been faced with new performance measurements in Ebacc and Progress 8 subject combinations.

It must be said that, though quick to celebrate Gove’s 2013 climbdown, campaigners and education unions have not done very much to obstruct the new exam’s passage – devoting little campaigning time and resources. The creative and performing arts community have set up umbrella groups to try and prevent these areas of learning falling off curriculum provision in state schools, while employer organisations have criticised the over emphasis on ‘factual’ learning rather 21st century workplace skills. But there are still no real alternatives for key stage 4 (and 5) – at least none that have enjoyed popular support. What price a campaign?

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