Michael Gove is at risk of making changes to the school curriculum and exam system that have not been thought through. They could have a damaging effect on standards
Today’s Daily Mail splash on the future of GCSEs, the national curriculum, league tables and exam boards has the air of a brainstorm session at Sanctuary Buildings that has been released before being fully thought through. Nothing wrong with that, if Michael Gove spends some time thinking through all the implications of what he is proposing. But he needs to be careful that his proposals don’t end up undermining a wider drive to raise standards for all.
There are some perfectly good ideas in what appears to be being considered. It makes perfect sense to have a single exam board for each exam. The effect, of course, will be to have a single syllabus in these subjects. Which makes the supposed removal of the national curriculum from secondary schools rather less radical than is being suggested: indeed it would ensure that academies and free schools work to a single syllabus. Lord Baker is right to argue that it is as important that technical subjects are examined at a high standard as well as Gove’s favoured subjects like history and geography.
The second question concerns the proposal of splitting the GCSE into a CSE and O-level exam. There is a seductive sense to this idea if you believe that the only impact of GCSEs has been a ‘dumbing down’. But this is a tabloid caricature. It is perfectly fair to feel that there needs to be more rigour involved in getting an A grade, but that doesn’t mean writing off thousands of youngsters who could today strive for a C.
There is a terrible canard in the notion that the use of the 5 A-C benchmark itself denies ambition: in fact, a C is worth far more to a child than a D when talking to employers, and the existence of the benchmark has led many schools to push such pupils towards a grade they can achieve in a way that the average point score would not necessarily do.
But there is a good argument for saying that achieving an A grade should be really demanding. With a single syllabus there is no reason why this cannot be achieved in a single exam, particularly since Gove wants to move back to linear testing at the end of two years. That is not to say there is no place for more practical exams in English, Maths and Science.
Such tests should be available, however, at GCSE standard of level 2 as well as the less demanding level 1, and less ‘academically -minded’ students should not merely be expected to achieve level 1. It would be a serious and terribly retrograde step to move in this direction, and Gove will find that it could have as serious an impact as Labour’s scrapping of an expectation that all schools study languages through to 16.
This raises the issue of league tables and floor targets. And it is here that Gove could be making his biggest mistake. The big improvements in London and by academies over the last decade have been spurred in part by ever-more ambitious floor targets based on the 5 GCSE standard. It is a realistic but relatively demanding ambition for schools to expect a majority of their pupils to reach this level, and Gove has sharply increased the demand of the floor targets.
Of course, one could set a target based on the average point score, but this could have the perverse effect of lowering expectations in terms of breadth. And since there is no longer a strong incentive to use high GCSE vocational alternatives, the main concern here has been addressed. By all means publish a 5A target alongside this, though in truth the EBacc is becoming the more rigorous target here.
Gove has time to get this right. More rigorous GCSEs, particularly for top achievers, do not have to place a cap on ambition for many other students. More practical business-focused English and Maths tests should not themselves be set unambitiously. And Gove should not throw away one of the most effective drivers of improve standards for many schools in the process.
This blog first appeared on Conor’s Commentary