Michael Gove – Dragon Slayer

19th September, 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.”

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