The ubiquity of “Keep Calm and Carry On” and its off-shoot slogans has long since robbed them of any quaint charm they might have once possessed, but there are still times when those old words have some use: times like now, when the Secretary of State for Education has leaked to the Daily Mail that he intends to re-introduce O-levels.
As this emerged on Twitter last night, I watched the storm of indignation which Twitter so ably generates rise and break: CSEs will limit ambition, Gove is obsessed with the 1950s, the National Curriculum is the only thing that stands between us and educational chaos.
To which my answer is: “Well, possibly.” But before I got all hot and bothered, I would consider each of these points:
1. We actually have no real idea what Gove is planning: the most interesting thing about the original Daily Mail article, and indeed about Gove’s answers in the House today, is that they mostly say nothing about what will actually happen. What we know so far is that the Daily Mail is excited by the use of the words “O-level” which hardly counts as a surprise. Clearly something is going to happen, and I’ll look at some of things that might do, but most of this seems to be about Gove getting someone to write an article like this about him in the Telegraph. The Tory Right won’t pay a lot of attention to what actually happens as a result of this (why should they, their kids aren’t in these schools?) so actually Gove can introduce the far more sensible aspects of his reform (like a single exam board) whilst gaining Conservative Kudos.
2. If Gove is serious about the O-level thing, it won’t actually mark much of a change from the present system – most GCSE subjects (although not mine) already divide students into Foundation and Higher papers with the limits on ambition that implies. Moreover, even if they didn’t, achieving anything less than a C is seen as not a success because of the A*-C measure – GCSEs never entirely did away with the sheeps’n’goats aspect of the O-level/CSE divison, so whilst I wouldn’t recommend making that line harder, I don’t think it will have the deleterious impact many people are suggesting. The major issue with 14-19 qualifications is that they are already too dependent on terminal exams, so whilst dressing those exams up in your grandmother’s clothing isn’t likely to improve the situation, it won’t make it much worse either.
3. Let’s say Gove does rename his new qualifications “O-levels”, I dare him to introduce questions for my subject (History) that were as conceptually easy as those for the old O-levels and pretend they are harder than the current GCSE. It is a myth O-levels were harder – they probably required you to remember more facts, but they didn’t require you to do anything as complex with them as the present GCSEs, with their focus on using evidence, judging significance or weighing interpretations.
4. Abolishing the National Curriculum is A Bad Thing in theory, especially for parents keen to know what it is their children are supposed to be learning – however, Gove has already given half of secondaries the right to opt out, as they have become academies, and more primaries will follow, so it’s something a dead letter anyway. Moreover, when the NC was introduced, it came at the end of an age of total school autonomy in which there existed no shared, national sense of what kids should learn or be able to do at the end of school – having 25 years of a national curriculum has focussed those debates a great deal, and a very broad common understanding of good curriculum practice is likely to prevail for a long time to come. The great shame in abolishing the NC is in losing the sense that there is a fundamental curriculum entitlement for all children as a right – this is something Labour should look to rectify as the earliest possible opportunity, but in fact Gove is doing us a favour since our Fundamental Entitlement or Children’s Guarantee or whatever we will call it, won’t have to be built over the skeleton of the old national curriculum since it won’t exist.
Overall, for me the most upsetting thing about Gove’s actions is the damage it does the cause of genuine and much needed reform, to the curriculum and elsewhere in schools. Gove casually throws out challenges to the teaching profession and teaching leaders respond by denouncing him, thereby generating exactly the kind of story he likes: brave Gove against the trendy hippies. This is a problem for committed school reformers, because there are genuine fights that need to be had about school improvement, and wasting time on showboating for the Daily Mail and winding up possible allies in the teaching profession is a waste of the momentum that (whatever else can be said of Gove) he has built up.
There is a very real potential coalition out there for radical, reasoned and responsible school reform – if Gove is determined not to be part of it so he can show off in pursuit of the Tory leadership, so much the easier for Labour to take up the mantle. But knowing which of Gove’s initiatives to back, which to condemn and which to simply ignore requires us very much to keep calm. Carry on.
John Blake is Chair of Labour Teachers