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).