Michael Gove – Dragon Slayer

September 19, 2012 10:30 am

In recent weeks I have been struck on the number of encounters I have had with people who seem to have some very funny ideas of how GCSEs were assessed. This it turned out was partly due to Mr Gove’s attempt to leak his entire plans for exam overhaul well before the official announcement. In more ways than one this process has resembled a crime scene with a trail of blood eventually leading to the corpse. Mr Gove has created some mythical dragons, which he has then proceeded to slay. I’ll outline a couple of these first before discussing some of the reforms from a teacher’s eye view.

The first myth is that all GCSEs are assessed through ongoing assessment and coursework. In reality most are assessed purely by exam, or with the majority of the grade determined by the examined component. Mathematics is entirely assessed through examination and English is moving towards a combination of exams and controlled assessments (an exam in all but name). Sciences will have a 25% controlled assessment “ISA” the remainder of the course is examined. Even subjects like Drama and Dance contain written examined units, such is the obsession for this mode of assessment. The myth that GCSEs are flawed because they are all based on coursework is false  there is no requirement for them to have any coursework, but some subjects contain skills which can only be assessed in this way. The sad fact is a large amount of money has already been spent removing coursework from the GCSE specification, money now wasted as these changes will be phased out within 2 years of their implementation.

Myth number two that all GCSEs are modular, or that this reduces rigour. There was a push towards modular examinations partly this was meant to allow more rigorous assessment of the entire content of a course. There is only so much you can examine or expect someone to remember in one exam, at the end of two years of study. There was opportunity to resit, but in the reformed GCSE this was greatly reduced, besides schools have been entering students early for non-modular mathematics courses for years with the idea of being able to resit until successful. There is no intrinsic reason why testing knowledge more throughly through several smaller exams should be any less rigorous than  more generally in one big one at the end. Anecdotally I noticed this year that many students in a school in my area had been entered for both a modular and a terminal mathematics course at the same time, and guess which one they generally did better in, yep the terminal one! In any case the new GCSE has phased out modular exams in the core subjects.

Myth number three that GCSEs are only taken at 16 at the end of secondary school. For some time now schools have been ‘early entering’ students for GCSEs in year 10, allowing them to squeeze more results out of their brighter students to help them in their league tables, sorry, I meant to give brighter students more opportunities. For those less successful most FE and sixth form colleges would offer the opportunity to retake the course or work towards an equivalent qualification.

Myth number four that GCSEs are some how not rigorous because they are GCSEs. It is pretty inarguable that GCSEs have allowed students with weaker skills to attain higher grades, however this is not simply down to grade inflation. It is to be expected within a system that has put an overemphasis upon grades as a measure of a school’s success. What we have created is an education system which has become ever more efficient at pushing students to acquire the arcane skills of ‘doing an exam’ in any given subject. This has not sadly in many cases been accompanied by an equivalent improvement in the more general skills associated with education and learning. However there is no reason why a GCSE cannot ‘raise the bar’ if required as the recent English GCSE fiasco has demonstrated.

Some of Mr Gove’s proposals are a good idea, such as allowing only one exam board to assess each subject, this will avoid the ‘race to the bottom’ but also provide a fairer comparison of student’s grades as they will all sit the same exam.

The ‘one size fits all’ exam, a sop to the Lib Dems is a disaster and will lead to many young people leaving education with no qualifications at all. The government are mistaking a relatively crude measuring tool for actual education and persist (as with previous governments) with the idea that ‘raising examination standards’ is synonymous with raising educational standards. Schools and teachers will now be left trying to work out how they can best assist young people with these new tests, since it seems their worth and the worth of the young people is measured purely on their grades.

The ludicrous comment by Mr Gove that somehow we can sort out ‘spoon feeding’ and ‘teaching to the exam’ through an exam system is verging on the paradoxical. It is not the system of exams that leads to these problems but the corruption of the education system through league tables, success rates and the other paraphernalia associated with exams. Schools and teachers are rewarded for getting student’s through exams rather than maintaining standards.

An exam is either a tool for dividing a cohort into relative groupings or a dividing line between those who attain a certain benchmark and those who do not. It remains limited in that it can only really measure quite specific sorts of learning or understanding when restricted to writing things down under a time constraint. As a consequence Mr Gove’s plans are neither radical nor transformative and demonstrate the paucity of both his understanding of education and his plans for its future.

I leave you with this rather excellent quote from Kevin Stannard of the Girls’ Day School Trust:

“Tinkering with exams is a cheap and relatively easy lever for governments, which has been used and over-used in the past couple of decades. What would make a real, long-term difference to raising standards for all children would be improving the teaching and learning in all schools – but that’s long, and hard, and expensive.”

  • http://twitter.com/petewilson89 Pete Wilson

    I agree – the exam board reform is welcome, and there’s no great break with the past as Gove the Radical likes to paint it.

  • http://twitter.com/redrenie24 Renie Anjeh

    I did not like GCSEs. They need reform and this whole exam board stuff is really annoying. To be fair to Gove, at least he understand we need GCSE reform, even though some of these reforms are wrong.

    • Alexwilliamz

      Can you be a little more specific as to why you did not like GCSEs? was it the GCSE or the education you received in general? What did you think the purpose of the qualification?

      • http://twitter.com/redrenie24 Renie Anjeh

        The GCSEs really. Personally, I am still feeling the shock from GCSE to A-Level and to be honest, even though I think coursework is necessary, I hated most of it. Labour should not continue with it, we could either implement the Tomlinson Report ten years late or go ahead with expanding the existing ModBacc.

  • Mr Arthur Cook

    Mr Gove has lost his grip. His toxic mix of “off the cuff” policy making and tendency to ignore sound council has left the education system in limbo. He tears up the curriculum but yet demands that new qualifications are designed before the new curriculum is in place! He is faced with a surging pupil population but squanders money on “Freeschools” which don’t open or are in the wrong place. He is the champion of parental choice but parents are evil and want their children to fail …. if they don’t want his academy. He demands higher standards for the training of teachers…and then allows people with no qualification to teach in academies! He trumpets that “head teachers know how to spend their budgets best”….but then complains that they are not spending it as HE intended. He offers “curriculum freedom” to academies …… and then imposes an E-bacc which will take up 85% of the timetable – more prescription than ever before.

    Mr Gove is a chippie character when he has a bolt hole to run to. However, when cornered in an ongoing debate by someone who knows about education he becomes aggressive and hysterical claiming that all who disagree with him are “Trotskyites”.
    Mr Twigg – why are you not exposing the mess he has created in its magnificent entirety. He has no allies other than those who seek to gain from profit making schools and the rabid, ranting Daily Mail readers who see him as their only hope to regain Empire. He has united head teachers, teachers, parents and academics in condemnation of his “make it up as you go along” pantomime of reform.
    Wake up Twigg!! You are too quiet! Expose the clown for what he is.

Latest

  • Comment Freelancing needs a policy agenda of its own

    Freelancing needs a policy agenda of its own

    The self employed are often the ‘most entrepreneurial, go-getting people in Britain’ . That is what Ed Milliband said during his conference speech when he placed a commitment to the self employed and albeit freelance workers at the heart of his election pledges for the general election. One of Labour’s six pledges is to provide equal rights to the self employment. As Ed Mililband noted ‘two out of three don’t have a pension, one in five can’t get a mortgage. […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Cameron’s pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act shows he’s legally illiterate

    Cameron’s pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act shows he’s legally illiterate

    In a crowded field, there is one issue which can always evoke splenetic outrage in the Daily Mail and the Tory backbenches: the Human Rights Act. And so it came as no surprise that its abolition ‘once and for all’ formed an integral part of David Cameron’s speech to the Tory conference. He had a simple pitch: the UK government is being told what to do, not by its own Courts but by Strasbourg. So we need a British Bill […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Cameron’s Tax Cut is a Tax Con – but it’ll be popular, and highlights Labour’s missed opportunity

    Cameron’s Tax Cut is a Tax Con – but it’ll be popular, and highlights Labour’s missed opportunity

    David Cameron’s conference speech today was well-delivered, punchy and memorable. It had a clear top line to grab the evening news headlines, and his populist tax cuts will be the overwhelming focus of tomorrow’s front pages. This was cheese to Miliband’s chalk. Whilst the Labour leader appeared to lack energy last week, and his headline announcement leaked in advance (and wasn’t sufficiently headline-grabbing to grab headlines), Cameron was surprisingly pumped up, energetic and forceful. He was also doling out policy like […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Dismantling Britain’s despotism

    Dismantling Britain’s despotism

    The fictional town of Dunchester is the scene for a right-wing science-fiction novel by nineteenth century author H. Rider Haggard. It is also the site for a fantasy game used to recruit and train British civil servants. The Tory novel is about radicals trying to block experts and professionals from saving Dunchester from an epidemic of plague. The civil service game allows players to spend £20 million in regenerating a fake town with the same name. Players take the role […]

    Read more →
  • News Video “This is who we resent” – David Cameron lets slip what he actually thinks

    “This is who we resent” – David Cameron lets slip what he actually thinks

    Unfortunate Freudian slip for David Cameron during his Conference speech today: “This party is the trade union for children from the poorest estates and the most chaotic homes; this party is the union for the young woman who wants an apprenticeship; teenagers who want to make something of their lives – this is who we resent.”

    Read more →
7ads6x98y