Michael Gove and the English Baccalaureate

By Professor Bernard Barker, Emeritus Professor, School of Education, University of Leicester.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, is the dazzling prima donna of the Coalition, perpetually dashing towards the sound of ideological gunfire and smashing New Labour’s policy apparatus with the artful glee of Violet Elizabeth in Just William, announcing that he’ll ‘thcream and thcream till I’m thick’. His brilliantly successful, two-part method is (a) to do the exact opposite of what he says, whilst ignoring the wreckage in his wake, and (b) to rubbish every phenomenon vaguely associated with his predecessors and opponents.

(a) Before the election, he promised to scrap targets and claimed that school freedoms were ‘central to Conservative education plans.’ Once in office, he replaced ‘floor targets’ with ‘floor standards’ and is forcing schools to surrender their independence to miscellaneous academy sponsors. The pre-election concept of ‘greater freedom for professionals’ has become the opportunity to implement the latest policy gyration. Now, he is a passionate advocate of social mobility, but scrapped the education maintenance allowance and supported increased tuition fees. Gove is eager to promote competitive sport, so abolished the school sports partnership and approved the sale of playing fields; he is ardent about austerity cuts, so has spent £50 million on prototype free schools, built in areas where there is no obvious need for extra places.

(b) After over 20 years of Conservative and Labour reforms, he declares that everyone who disagrees with him has failed. English schools have slipped down the international league tables, standards of literacy and numeracy are falling, the curriculum is padded out with easy options, ‘traditional’ knowledge has been ‘dumbed down’ or abandoned, examination boards are engaged in a ‘corrupt effort to massage up pass rates’ and grade inflation has devalued GCSE. For the Secretary of State and his backbench admirers, the answer is obvious – a new set of reforms designed to return us to a lost era when traditional values and methods ensured the highest possible standards. We have made no progress, so we must go back.

Mr Gove’s mixture of paradox (less benefit = more opportunity) and evidence-free assertion (standards have fallen) has helped establish a reactionary political narrative that is hard to resist, mainly because it challenges opponents to endorse wasteful spending, soft options and low standards. Critics have lost the microphone before they have begun to explain that during the golden age of our youth, eighty in every hundred children failed the eleven plus and only four in every hundred entered higher education.

When dissenters argue that comprehensive schools were introduced to redress the injustice of so-called ‘traditional’ education, they are widely disbelieved and even condemned, because everyone knows that grammar schools were havens for ambitious working class children. A modern Cassandra may warn that we cannot return to the past, because the conditions that made it have disappeared, but none of those who yearn for an imaginary age, when no one misused the apostrophe and Pope and Dryden were discussed in every playground, will choose to hear. Of course we must go back.

Good politics is not necessarily good policy, however. Mr Gove’s proposed sixteen plus examination¹, to be named the English Baccalaureate (or EBacc²) and intended to replace the ‘failed’ GCSE, illustrates the difference between brilliant political rhetoric and effective reform.

Mr Gove is thought to be well educated and often talks of his own educational experiences as if the private schools of forty years ago were a suitable template for the nation’s classrooms. But all his thoughts on examinations betray ignorance of the assessment and statistical issues involved. His insistence that schools and children shall achieve at least average grades, and that the gap between more and less able students be closed, shows that the normal distribution curve is a mystery to him. He seems unaware of the concept of criterion referencing and the difference between the two principal methods of awarding grades. This means that his use of the term ‘rigour’ is political, not educational.

He seems to believe that we can define and measure children’s mastery of timeless, Platonic forms of knowledge, as if test and examination papers were not subjective, selective constructions, and as if results can be produced without an arbitrary choice of statistical treatment. He aims to scrap assessment methods he dislikes, but does not explain why modular structures and coursework are less valid than scribbling in examination halls. He does not explain why design technology, drama, art, music, social science and religious studies are inappropriate subjects for the EBacc. He does not give reasons why some learning methods and styles (e.g. practical, visual, expressive) are less useful and valuable than others.

He has never attended a moderation meeting, where participants learn the intense subjectivity of assessment, and the sobering fact that any answer to any question is likely to receive widely differing marks from a roomful of examiners. Grade inflation has undoubtedly happened, but no one has properly explained a phenomenon that affects every award in the education firmament, from firsts at Cambridge to literacy grades in primary schools. Have the boards, regulators and examiners ‘raced to the bottom’ or have teachers and children triumphed in their mastery of test technology?

Mr Gove is persuaded that examinations are too easy and proclaims that too many students have acquired more or less worthless qualifications. The example of English GCSE in 2012 suggests that the new examination is intended to have a deflationary impact on marks and grades, so reducing the number of successful students. Without such a reduction, EBacc will be as vulnerable to complaints about grade inflation as GCSE is today. But if the pass rate is significantly less for the new exam, every school will experience plunging results and large numbers will leave school with no qualifications. Standards will go up in terms of the value of the award, and down in terms of total passes. The numbers qualified for university may fall, leading to lower admission offers or an increase in overseas recruitment, or even closure for redundant courses and institutions.

It is too soon to assess the full implications of this embryo examination but there are early signs of seriously negative consequences. A narrow, academic curriculum will cause serious pain for less able and disadvantaged students. The limited range of assessment methods will reward lifeless, repetitive teaching, while the exam itself threatens to overvalue journalistic scribbling and to downgrade every other skill, from dance and drama to designing and making. The long implementation period (2012 – 2017) threatens to cause unhappiness (for the final GCSE cohorts) and uncertainty (for teachers anxious for details of the new game). The English Baccalaureate seems all set to recreate the exclusion and failure experienced by average children before the introduction of GCSE.

This is the price young people must pay for a system controlled and driven by a handful of politicians in London, and for a decision-making process that deliberately excludes professional knowledge, expertise and experience. They are victims of a supreme abuse of power.

Professor Bernard Barker, School of Education, University of Leicester.


¹ Announced by the Secretary of State in a Commons Statement on 17th September 2012.
² Mr Gove’s habit of saying the opposite of what he actually intends may explain why he sounds devoted to French education, despite impeccable Euro-sceptic credentials. We shall know our neighbours are in trouble when they introduce the French GCSE (FGCSE).


  1. Cath
    Posted 11/10/2012 at 11:04 | Permalink

    Wanting to return to an antiquated O Level style system with an exam at the end of two years work which was scrapped because it disadvantaged the majority of students who did not have the ability to cram is BONKERS! It is also disrespectful to all the educational professionals who have worked to develop a more equitable system.
    My daughter has just completed her GCSE’s She achieved 5 A* and the rest were A’s. In order to achieve that she had to work really hard throughout the two years of the course rather than what I did with my O level’s which was to coast along for 18 months and then cram. According to MIKE my daughter’s achievement was not a good result as it it did not highlight any weaknesses!

    GCSE’s are not perfect, nor is the education system; particularly as it continues to fail those who have more practical skills and interests and force them through the ‘sausage machine of academic qualifications.’ However, it is complete madness to scrap everything that has been learnt and developed in secondary education over the last 30 years to suit the whim of a minister who did all right in his O levels in his privileged world of private education.


    MIke Reply:

    I have no doubt that your daughter worked extremely hard and is exceptionally talented and able in 10 different subjects (far cleverer and harder-working than anybody in my day, when pupils took only 8 subjects and it was unheard of to get A in more than half, even if you were Oxbridge fodder). Unfortunately, the current system means that some of her contemporaries, who are not quite so brilliant as her, will have achieved similar results. Is that not a problem?

    And not only has it not highlighted any weaknesses, it has not highlighted any strengths either. Is that not also a problem?

    I will be extremely disappointed if my son, in a few years, achieves the same grades as your daughter (or if the pupils in the school where I am a Governor achieve those sort of grades). Not disappointed in him or them, but disappointed in a system that will have abjectly failed to stretch the pupils’ abilities. A good system is one which creates a spread of marks, not one where everybody scores top marks at everything, whatever parents may say.


  2. Teige M-P
    Posted 04/10/2012 at 22:04 | Permalink

    Great article, the current government is sneaking in some diabolical reforms to education and health that appear 100% the whim, delusion and ideology of some detatched ministers.


  3. DBS
    Posted 02/10/2012 at 20:36 | Permalink

    What is the definition of “fit for purpose”, and who defines it?

    This would seem to be the (subjective, even arbitrary?) standard against which GCSEs are said to have failed. An example – I live in The Netherlands. All of the children at our international school (no names, won’t take long to guess) take GCSE Dutch, many in Year 9, many get an A or A*. Is this below par or not fit for purpose because they are so young? No. I learnt French and German at school, and Dutch on the streets, so to speak, which allows a nice comparison from a position of some expertise. Perusing through the syllabus for Dutch IGCSE, one thing is clear – if anyone masters the subject-matter of this syllabus, they would be able to hit the streets running with Dutch, understand and be understood, and function pretty well, barring the occasional lack of vocabulary. That is a considerable achievement, and an eminently useful and practial one. So it is eminently fit for purpose because the course work and exam demonstate that a decent level of language has been achieved.

    Now, apply that to other subjects, according to your knowledge. Is the GCSE per se unfit for purpose, or is it simply a matter of ensuring challenging but useful and achievable content, and setting the bar for cerain grades at a level to distinguish real achievement while avoiding the “all must have prizes” dogma? I don’t think that is difficult to answer.

    Have to comment that there is a body of evidence that standards are falling, from the PISA assessments internationally and from the regular analyses from the University of Durham. But these are arguments for re-calibration and for re-organisation (a central authority for exams rather than race-to-the-bottom exam board competition?) not for wholesale replacement with a new system based on a rose-tinted view of the standards of the past. I did O and A levels and went to a grammar school just like Mr Gove, who is a year younger than me, and I’m not sure I had a harder time than my children, who are now spread through the whole public examination life experience (!) or that they are learning less. And we had to achieve something like a baccalaureate, in everything but name – English, Maths, a language and 2 other O levels at grade C or above, or no entry into the 6th form. What’s in a name? Not a new exam system, surely!

    There are many aspects of improving our education system and giving children the skills and knowledge they will need – it would be nice if noisy parents really did give a damn and actually supported their schools rather than complaining and doing nothing, and I’ve run into too many truly dreadful teachers and incompetent school managers, but that’s only my experience. But I feel, without being able to prove it, that clamouring for a new exam system is pointless when a thorough review of the current system, which has the merit of being understood, would suffice.

    And what is wrong with recalibrating a system in which future results would appear to go down? After all, such grade inflation would not happen at a British university, would it? 😉


  4. Posted 01/10/2012 at 13:35 | Permalink

    As the English Association told the DfE in a meeting last week, there will be much confusion over these new examinations which are in fact called English Baccalaureate Certificates – these will initially be awarded in English, history, geography, the sciences, mathematics and languages and are completely different to the English Baccaulaureate . . .


  5. Chris Williams
    Posted 28/09/2012 at 13:37 | Permalink

    Mr. Goverment wants to replace GCSE with are dumbed down O Level GCE examinations with a dumbed down version of IB Middle Years Programme. How much better to give pupils the real thing to get them thinking rather than storing a few facts to regurgitate on one day.

    To quote the IBO, the IB MYP programme consists of eight subject groups integrated through five areas of interaction that provide a framework for learning within and across the subjects. Students are required to study their mother tongue, a second language, humanities, sciences, mathematics, arts, physical education and technology. In the final year of the programme, students also engage in a personal project, which allows them to demonstrate the understandings and skills they have developed throughout the programme.

    If you want to create a well educated society how could you consider giving your children less than this.


    Chris Williams Reply:

    The first line should have read, Mr Gove wants to replace GCSEs which are dumbed down O Level GCE examinations with a dumbed down version of the IB Middle Years Programme.

    C- for proof reading.


  6. MIke
    Posted 27/09/2012 at 09:35 | Permalink

    As a parent and a school governor, I welcome anything that replaces the hopelessly not-fit-for-purpose GCSE. Any system of measurement which unrelently trends towards 100% (see also A-levels) is ultimately doomed to failure and cannot provide effective comparisons between differing year groups.

    Exams only have value if they function in a meritocratic way. Too many left-wing apologists see ‘meritocracy’ as a dirty word, believing the Blairite nonsense that somehow everyone can succeed at everything. It’s not about some people doing ‘well’ and some doing ‘badly’, it’s about everyone doing well at the things they’re good at. If a student scores highly across all their subjects, how can they, their school or any employer or university distinguish their strengths. Rather than a good spread of marks punishing the less able, a narrow spread punishes the more able by failing to identify or distinguish their abilities.

    Also, a return to a reliance on exams is definitely to be welcomed. Back in the days of O-levels people complained that they were hard. Information: they’re meant to be. Modular course-work doesn’t in any way reflect real-life. In the world of work, you can’t learn one thing, apply it, then forget about it and learn something else. You have to know everything all the time and be able to draw on whichever part of your knowledge is appropriate in a given situation – just like an exam. (There is also an argument that exams tend to favour boys, coursework favours girls. So, since boys underperform at school, a return to exams would go some way towards redressing this inequality.)


    Peta Fray Reply:

    When did you last take an exam in the ‘real world? The closest thing you get is a test for OH&S which everyone must pass to tick the appropriate boxes in audit process.
    In the world of work you absolutely learn one thing, apply it and then move on. What course work and modular learning does is develop the skills for the project type work that most people manage today. Long gone are the days of one job, one skill. If you are not flexible and don’t have the ability to pick up new tasks and opportunities, then you will struggle. How does an exam where you cram everything into your head, then promptly forget it all, rather than sustained performance over a period of time, have any bearing on the future work place.


    MIke Reply:

    Wow, I’d love a job where I only have to know one thing at a time! Please explain how modular coursework relates to “sustained performance over a period of time”. I would be more impressed by someone who can learn everything then forget it than someone who learns then forgets each thing sequentially.

    An ability to retain a broad range of applicable skills and information is essential when required to “pick up new tasks and opportunities”. But if everything is learned in a modular, unconnected way then, as a great man once said: “Every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain.”


    Martin Reply:

    Although I generally agree with the thrust of your argument, the claim that examinations are a better reflection of real-life than course work is baffling. I would feel genuinely sorry for anyone whose working life was one long examination with no time to fill gaps in knowledge or to seek external expertise or opinion. Also, haven’t you encountered the phenomenon of cram-regurgitate-forget?


    Monad Reply:

    Thanks Professor Bernard Barker! I am disturbed MIke is allowed to be a school governor. His arguments are just like Gove’s, based on hearsay, without evidence. I have recently retired from 30 years in secondary education, and whilst GCSE’s are not perfect, to say they are “hopelessly not-fit-for-purpose” is just plain wrong. Going back to the O level/CSE won’t work either. I don’t think Gove understands the purpose of education either.


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