Category: 14-19

GCSEs, Margaret Thatcher and Michael Gove

Margaret_Thatcher_1981The recent publication of official papers from the 1980s provides further context to the introduction of GCSEs.

The new common exam, reflected the growth of comprehensive schools, many being given the go ahead by Thatcher herself,  while  a dual system of CSE and GCE O-level examinations, the former  still acting primarily as a ‘leaving’ certificate for ‘non-academic’ young people was also becoming increasingly inappropriate, as staying on rates continued to  increase. In addition many schools were able to ensure that their students were being awarded CSE grade 1 (O-level equivalent).  Despite this however, the papers report Prime Minister Thatcher’s concern that GCSE would result in too high levels of exam success, reflecting  the extent to which  New Right thinking  was already starting to sweep   through the education  system.

GCSE, possibly because it was so new, was able to survive the Education Reform Act, although tiering was quickly introduced.  It wasn’t until over 25 years later that Michael Gove launched a full-frontal attack on the qualification, unsuccessfully seeking to replace it with new E-bacc certificates, but then abolishing most of its progressive features and in so doing so, making it look more like the old O-level, as well as being  harder to pass.

Meanwhile   last week,  CBI  director general  John Cridland called for peak level assessment to be delayed till 18 and rather than GCSE, for more individually tailored learning from  14 and for young people to mix and match academic and vocational learning  ‘depending on what’s right for them’

It does seem ridiculous that with the raising of the participation age to 18,  GCSE continues to dominate the secondary curriculum. Practitioners and teacher unions must not let organisations like the CBI set the tone of this debate however


Gove’s exam reforms may still come off the rails

imagesYEARDIVDAfter months of concern, alarm  bells are ringing over accreditation of new A-level syllabuses

Maths and further maths have been put back a year to 2017, while chemistry and English literature syllabuses, due to be taught from 2105  have yet to be given the green-light by Ofqual. With continued doubts  about the new GCSEs also due to begin in 2015 , Michael Gove’s  draconian examinations remain precarious even if Nicky Morgan appears to have been instructed to rubber stamp them.

Telling members that schools and colleges were ‘magnificently rising to the challenge’ Morgan  received a grilling at the Parliamentary Sub-Committee earlier this month on the timing, but also about the design of the new qualifications.

While schools and colleges, even private sector headteachers, continue to be concerned about the pressures on schools in implementing another new set of changes, it’s vital that campaigners, practitioners and teacher unions continue to question and campaign against the archaic educational principles behind the reforms, which as Radicaled has continued to argue, are designed to halt rising success rates as labour market opportunities for young people continue to decline.

As the NUT’s Manifesto for Education outlines, we need a wider vision of learning and achievement.

A-level of uncertainty

Another year of university ‘clearing’ swings into gear; but it now takes a very different form compared to when originauntitledlly established to help those who had missed out on their grades having a second opportunity to gain a place elsewhere. Despite tuition fee hikes and Coalition members continuing  to ‘talk up’  failing apprenticeships as an alternative to university,  there’s no evidence that students are shunning Higher Education – disadvantaged young people even less so (   

With universities now able to recruit an unlimited number of students with ABB grades and with those who achieve higher grades  than are expected able to ‘trade up’ the Financial Times (09/08/14) likened the process to a “football transfer window” as leading universities use everything from free laptops to cash incentives to lure away those who’ve already been accepted elsewhere ( As the FT indicates, it’s clear that more institutions have been using the Oxbridge style ‘unconditional offer’ to make sure that they are not left empty handed.

This is only half of the story however. If an additional 30,000 places have been funded to allow the recruitment of high performers, this year’s A-level results mean that competition for students will be intensified further and universities are likely to have to admit many who have failed to gain the grades required in their original offer. Despite a 0.6% increase in the new A*grade (as teachers found out what was required to reach it), the percentage of A and B grades are down slightly as is the overall pass rate. A fall in the number of 18 year olds also reduces the size of the pool the universities are fishing in.

Changes to examinations by Michael Gove and supported by new Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, are also affecting the supply of applicants. The ending of the January sitting limits retake opportunities and reductions in coursework are said to favour boys.  Ofqual has been instructed to apply a ‘comparative outcomes’ approach, designed to limit ‘grade inflation’ while the proportion of entries for the more traditional ‘facilitating’ subjects favoured by Russell universities have also increased.

Because of other changes to individual subjects, Ofqual chief Glenys Stacey had already warned that public exam results could be ‘particularly volatile’ this year; but in future the general trend can only  be downwards because more fundamental changes to A-levels kick in from 2015  ( and

In the post-crash economy however, the increase in both the number of university places available and the number of ‘first choice’ acceptances will not be ‘an important source of social mobility’, as Universities Minister Greg Clark claims. Instead, the number of young people finding themselves ‘overqualified and underemployed’ will continue to grow as Office for National Statistics figures  just released show continued falls in levels of pay  and the number of new  jobs being created in low skill/ low paid sectors vastly outnumbering  better paid/ higher skilled opportunities. Around a million jobs may have been created in the last 12 months but less than 1 in 5 can be classified as ‘professional, scientific or technical’.  (  This can only strengthen arguments that changes to the education system, in the interests of young people rather than market forces, must be part of more general changes to the labour market and economy if they are to be effective.


Tech-Bacc, step back.

7de8767d-e9d4-2404-2111-ec9a0a24877aLabour has published Qualifications Matter, proposals for 14-19 education, as part of its Policy Review ( . It’s going ahead with its support for a Tech-Bacc, something announced by Ed Miliband two years ago and designed for the ‘Forgotten 50%’ of school leavers who do not go to university. Under Labour’s proposals, all 14 year olds will have to follow courses in English and maths, undertake Personal Skills Development and an extended study or project, but will then follow either a technical (vocational) or general (academic) route to a National Baccalaureate qualification.

Resembling the tripartite days of 1944, these proposals should send alarm bells ringing amongst defenders of comprehensive education. Despite numerous attempts at reform, vocational education continues to experience lower status than academic learning with Alison Wolf in her review of vocational qualifications arguing that many vocational courses on offer to 14 year olds, were ‘worthless’ in terms of labour market entry. Wolf called for a limit (20%) on the amount of time they should occupy in Key Stage 4 learning. Employers have never put their weight behind vocational qualifications, preferring applicants from the academic route.

As a result, qualifications that have formed the backbone of the curriculum for many students, like the current BTEC First certificates for example, are no longer to be allowed to be used for league table purposes. The Coalition has also published a list of Advanced Tech and Applied level courses acceptable at post-16.

But other Tories, like National Curriculum creator Kenneth (now Lord) Baker, who has set up a network of University Technology Colleges (UTCs), have argued for more vocational specialisation after 14. Although it has not declared open support for Baker’s proposals for different types of schools for different types of learning; in many ways Labour is now closer to Baker, than Wolf or Michael Gove are!

‘One Nation’ Labour argues its Baccalaureate will provide a common exit qualification for all young people, yet recent surveys show only around 1 in 10 employers actively recruit school leavers anyway, but when they do, are relatively happy with ‘work readiness’ (

Advanced level vocational qualifications are also associated with providing access to ‘technical’ or ‘intermediate’ level employment opportunities, but there is continued evidence that many of these ‘middle’ jobs are disappearing as the occupational structure ‘hollows out’ and becomes ‘hour-glass’ shaped – or, as we argue, more like ‘pear-shaped’( Where these jobs do exist, they are more likely to be filled by university leavers finding they are unable to get ‘graduate’ jobs.

As a result, it’s even more important to argue for a good general education for everybody rather than specific ‘vocational’ opportunities. But this also means reforming the nature and content of academic learning – an area that reformers have tended to avoid as this will mean confronting the influence of elite universities and other groups that make up the ‘A-level’ lobby.

At the same time however, we can’t have the sort of illusions that One Nation Labour still entertains about the role that education can play in promoting ‘innovation and competitiveness’ as an alternative to ‘lowering wages for low-skilled jobs’ (QM p2). This won’t happen without an alternative economic strategy geared to the creation of sustainable employment opportunities and Labour doesn’t have one.


Book Review: Baker’s proposals are not a real alternative to Gove.

9781780938448Kenneth Baker’s 14-18 A New Vision for Secondary Education was published earlier this year, as Michael Gove’s offensive on the secondary curriculum continued unabatedly.  Concerned about how the emphasis on Ebacc subjects  would marginalise  vocational learning  and openly critical of Alison Wolf’s proposal that vocational options should be restricted to 20% of the Key Stage 4 curriculum, Baker enlists support from Mike Tomlinson, Alan Smithers and others.

Though the book includes some interesting ideas for the recreation of ‘middle schools’ and its back cover enjoys a range of endorsements, it doesn’t really provide a ‘new vision’, at all.  Rather it’s a return to the ideas of Ron Dearing and post-14 ‘tracking’ (Baker himself having set up the Baker Dearing Education Trust).  Brought in to  rescue Baker’s doomed  ten subject National Curriculum from growing teacher unrest, not to mention a SATs boycott in the early 1990s,  Dearing proposed that young people chose either academic or vocational pathways at age 14. During the next decade a vocational courses established themselves in most state secondary schools. Ostensibly promoted as enabling more curriculum choice reflecting a student’s ‘aptitude’ the reality was that schools put their less academic students on the GNVQs and BTECs.

The Gove curriculum  (and Wolf’s recommendations) is designed to roll-back this approach. Instead a subject based and ideologically loaded ‘grammar school’ curriculum has been imposed on all students.  Even if the English Baccalaureate proposals have been overturned,   GCSE has been rewritten to resemble the post-war O-level.  Vocational qualifications have been pruned and excluded from school league tables on the grounds that they are less rigorous and less demanding and that comprehensive schools have deliberately entered students for them, to improve league table positions.  Gove has tried to position himself as somebody wanting to restart social mobility, arguing that everybody will now have the chance to study the ‘core’ subjects valued by prestigious universities. The reality is that for most young people, the chances of upwards mobility will fall even further.

 Celebrating   a diversity of learning   opportunities even arguing young people may have particular aptitudes is one thing.  Calling for   different types of  ‘Liberal Arts’, ‘Technical’  ‘Sports and Creative Arts’ and ‘ Career’  schools at 14 as Baker does is quite another.  Baker, who has already been instrumental in establishing University Technical Colleges (UTCs) of which five are now open and another 28 approved, points to European counties like Germany and Holland;   where there are different schools for different routes. In the UTCs students will spend 40% of time on their technical subjects and 60% on a more general curriculum, including learning a foreign language  though this  will be tailored to their specialism, Baker giving  ‘German for engineering’ as an  example.

In terms of labour market placement it’s certainly the case that  German technical education has worked well, though it’s the  German apprenticeship system  to which 60% progress after they leave school and where 90% who complete, go into employment, that is seen to be the centre piece of the ‘dual system’.  Baker says little about apprenticeships and nothing  about how the German  model  has been based, at least until now, on a conception of ‘social partnership’ between employers and trade unions; rather than the free market.  The current UK system of apprenticeships   has little in common with this – Baker seems ignorant to the fact that 70% of those participating in apprenticeships are adults, most of whom    are already working for their employers.

Neither  do Baker, or any of the participating authors, attempt any real analysis of changes to occupational structure and which are most advanced in the ‘flexible’ labour markets of the UK and US. Baker is right to dismiss the ‘misguided optimism….held for several decades that a computerized, knowledge-based economy will provide a massive number of jobs for knowledge workers’ (11) but completely wrong to assume that economic prosperity and low levels of youth unemployment will depend on the re-emergence of skilled manual work (  and an education which allows young people to ‘get their hands dirty’ (,-schools-for-getting-your-hands-dirty).  

As a result, Baker’s proposals are more likely to resemble the British ‘tripartite’ model of the post-war years and they should not be regarded as an alternative to Gove.  Progressives should continue to defend the idea of ‘common schools’ which provide a good general education for all young people.  Baker’s proposals promise neither.

Restoring ‘economic competitiveness’. Will apprenticeships provide the answer?

young-people-main-image1Michael Gove’s   determination to hold education entirely responsible for the UK’s failing international competitiveness  is mirrored elsewhere. The week before Gove announced his latest GCSE proposals, David Cameron also called for a ‘new era’ of  apprenticeships  (  with  more academic assessment, particularly in maths and English.

Cameron’s  announcement was  also a  response to recommendations in the Richards Report commissioned by the Coalition, (  which outlined many of the current shortcomings of current schemes. Though the number is growing, 70 % of employers still do not offer apprenticeships (Guardian 08/10/13).

According to Department for Business, Innovation and Skills own research for example, 7% of apprenticeships last for less than six months, just under half last less than a year and only 22% longer than two years  ( .   Evidence that accompanied the Richards review also shows that 70% of apprentices previously worked for their employer –in otherwords   an apprenticeship merely involved a change in job title rather than a recruitment from outside. (

Nevertheless, almost 370 000 young people still submitted online applications through the National Apprenticeship Service  between February and April 2013. This represented an increase of 32%, but increases in vacancies only totalled 15% (Independent 31/05/2013). The vast majority of adverts are at Intermediate (GCSE) level. Out of 15432 vacancies (NAS website 05/11/13) there were only 1894 Advanced  and only 210 Higher level apprenticeships available, so it’s hardly surprising that young people still apply to university in their droves and that there remains over a million NEETS.

Business and Administration was the most popular area for applications. For example, the NAS website  (  displayed 5849 Business vacancies. This compares with 1456 vacancies in Engineering and Manufacturing (there won’t be many in the shipbuilding industry, that’s for sure).

Even if 60 of the Uk’s  leading businesses have responded to Cameron’s latest call. without other major changes to economic policy, it’s most  unlikely that employers will be able to sustain the number of apprentices, or more particularly, the types of apprenticeships that Cameron encourages them to establish. The Richards evidence shows, for example, that by over a quarter of employers took on an apprentice only because they were approached by a training provider, with only 12% referring to the need for qualified staff .


GCSE. The times they are a changing

The latest changes to GCSE by Michael Gove make the original examination even more unrecognisable.   It is somewhat ironic that GCSE was introduced by a Tory government headed by Margaret Thatcher and an Education Minister, Sir Keith Joseph, considered, like Gove, to be on the right of the party. GCSE was also left largely untouched by the Education Reform Act, the centrepiece of Tory education policy and which changed the landscape of state education. Why was an examination considered to be the most progressive and the most egalitarian introduced at the same time as a raft of reactionary policies were being unfolded?

Of course, in those days, despite the election of the Tories,   educational professionals still had significant influence over the curriculum and significant input into examination boards.  Yet other developments were also  taking place.  Firstly, GCSE was introduced in response to increased staying-on rates in schools, a result of the decline of employment opportunities for working class young people and the disastrous and unpopular youth training schemes being no more than ‘training without jobs’.  The old O-level, CSE divide was considered an inappropriate form of transition to post-16 education.  The two tier exam system was also geared to a manual / non-manual labour market divide rather than the expanding service economy in which  more jobs were  becoming ‘white collar’.  GCSE Mark 1 had a much simpler and more egalitarian grading system;   a straight A-G   compared to the old 1-9 scale in the O-level and incorporated as many features of the old CSE, as it did the O-level, notably its coursework emphasis.

Fast forward twenty –five years and the school system is faced with a different set of pressures. Increased staying on rates has led to huge increases in exam performance;   but not to increased opportunities for employment.   Michael Gove’s arguments about poor education standards being responsible for the failure to compete economically are a fallacy.   Quite the contrary, with a generation of young people being ‘over qualified and underemployed.’

The claim from School’s Minister Truss that increasing the amount of grades for GCSE   is the result of pressure from employers is complete nonsense.  Barely anybody now moves from school to a job at 16 anyway and less than one employer in eight actively tries to recruit school leavers and when they do, these are not 16 year olds.

Gove and the Tories undoubtedly want to return to the policies of the Tory New Right of the 1980s and of the ‘Black Paperites’ who preceded them.  This however, is only a partial explanation. Their main problem is that state education has been too successful.  As a result the egalitarian thinking behind the GCSE has to be reversed; part of a wider ‘great reversal’   where education becomes more about lowering aspirations, sharpening the differences between success and failure and creating new divisions between learners.

For young people, the majority now staying in education well beyond sixteen and with GCSE, unlike the 0-level, no longer an ‘end’ qualification; the last thing they need is more grading. We should campaign for a general diploma for everybody which provides a range of different opportunities, but also a minimum general education for all until 18 and where assessment at sixteen can serve as a useful  progress check in a longer period of learning.