Michael Gove this week announced the biggest shake-up of secondary education in a generation. Should his policies ultimately succeed then GCSE’s will be consigned to the bin, being replaced instead by a revamped system of ‘O’ Levels and CSE’s.
The way he announced it; allowing the reforms to be leaked to a very sympathetic Daily Mail before they had been discussed at cabinet, let alone parliament, is instructive in itself. It put Labour on the back foot, entrenching them into an ‘old-Labour’ ideological position whilst simultaneously emboldening parliamentary Conservatives and forcing Cameron to back reforms that are possibly too ‘old-Tory’ even for him. The Lib-Dems meanwhile continue to be confused – the leadership know the grassroots oppose any move towards a two-tier examination system, but understand that for the sake of the coalition and their immediate political future they cannot oppose it too much. In all the hype it is easy for Labour types like myself to disregard Gove and his policies as nothing more than nostalgic elitism but that would miss the point, and leave generations of kids worse off.
Labour’s track record in government was good but it was also unfinished, particularly when it came to secondary education. True, Academies had just started to take-off, breathing life into some of the country’s worst schools, but still too many talented pupils were able to coast, whilst those at the bottom were frequently not entered for traditional GCSEs for fear of the detrimental impact they may have on league tables. Meanwhile the competition between exam boards led to corruption and the perverse situation where those offering the easiest papers were at a commercial advantage. Finally, GCSEs have lost the confidence of many employers. None of this is to blame teachers or pupils, who I honestly believe work harder now than ever to attain the best possible grades. But to continue with a system that has so clearly had its time fails them perhaps more than anyone.
I actually agree with Gove on a couple of things – we should end intra-subject competition between different exam boards and papers should regularly be independently verified to ensure standards year-on-year remain consistently high.It is also fair to argue that too many pupils are gaining top-grades – that is not necessarily an admission they are easier than in previous generations, more that teaching has become more sophisticated and pupils are working harder, nonetheless any future exam system needs to be able to push the most able as much as it does the least. That said, a two-tier examination system that effectively limits a child’s ambition at the age of 13 or 14 is, to borrow a phrase from the PM, morally repugnant.
Instead, I believe we need to look across the continent for inspiration, delivering more broad-based education for longer with final assessments in english, maths, the sciences, arts, humanities and a language. The resultant qualification being similar to a ‘junior’ baccalaureate. From here students have a choice to carry on and study for a full ‘baccalaureate’ (or whatever we might choose to call our version) or to complete a vocational equivalent. Either way, all 16-18 year olds would stay in either full-time education or training.
Sadly, because of the nature of Gove’s leak and the resultant political positioning it is unlikely we will see the wider public debate and resultant policy in 11-18 education that is so desperately needed. Instead we are likely to see another generation unable to reach its full potential.