Gove’s GCSE Reform Speech: Our View

With much anticipation, we listened yesterday afternoon to England Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s, statement to the House of Commons on his proposed reforms to the current nationwide GCSE examination.

We were listening not only for the predictable bitchiness that accompanies any statement Gove makes to the Commons but also for anything that educationalists like ourselves may be surprised by and warmly welcome of.

Alas, no surprises and nothing to warm to.

Gove’s exam reform rationale was one that has been heard countless times before, and one that has been the excuse for countless educational reforms in the past: the world is changing, the UK is lagging behind its international competitors, businesses are complaining about the quality of employees, universities are complaining about the quality of their students, standards have been falling, examinations are easier than they were, need for greater rigour etc. etc..

To Gove, there is another, newer problem, however: Coursework. Apparently, it makes passing examinations too easy. By reintroducing summative, timed examinations no longer will pupils be taught to the test, no longer will they be able to pick and choose the examination that will be easiest to pass. As Gove explains, “We cannot have a system where some students enjoy an inbuilt and unfair advantage over others because of the exam design.”

Unfortunately, this was the whole point of coursework. It was designed to eradicate the “inbuilt and unfair advantage” that those who were good at essay writing had over those who didn’t.

By removing coursework, the changes benefit only those who are good at writing essays in timed exams. And as sociologists of education have known for a very, very long time those who are good at essay writing tend to be those from more affluent backgrounds.

We also note a contradiction. If competition is bad for exam boards, surely it’s bad for education as a whole? Why bother reforming league tables then? Get rid of them, we say.

Gove describes English, maths, the sciences, history, geography and languages as core subject areas but as Gove knows the creative industries provide much to the UK coffers. It then seems daft not to regard art, music and drama as core subjects given how much they bring in to the economy.

Another thing Gove talked about was fairness but is it really fair to force someone under the age of 18 to stay at school? And doesn’t it seem a weird logic to design an exam so that more people fail? That doesn’t seem very fair, either.

Great teaching is not helped by constant goalpost changing. Gove drops names of head-teachers as much as he has lunches with the Murdoch Empire. If he bothered to meet with teachers instead he would know that teachers – not just great ones – don’t need the added stress of new examinations. What they need are better pay and conditions, less political interference and to be free of the teacher-bashing that Gove and his attack dogs at OFSTED are fond of.

What teachers, pupils, parents and society as a whole most definitely don’t need moreover is a sour-faced journalist with a penchant for Education telling them what to do. And it is unfortunate that with every speech Gove makes, he confirms this opinion.

Gove can talk also about equality of opportunity as much as he likes but he knows that the socio-economic, cultural and family conditions that enable a young person to seize and capitalise on such an opportunity have to be right. No school, no new exam and no teacher – great or not – can do anything about that.

Gove finished his Commons statement by speaking of a “legacy of mismanagement, poor incentives and wasted talent in economic policy” that the Coalition inherited. Yet to us to constantly undermine the current exam system for 16-year olds is both poor management and a disincentive to all those teachers and pupils who are currently taking GCSEs.

And wasted talent? A kid resigned to the scrapheap because they had a bad day at the exams seems like a real waste to us. Indeed, is it also not a waste that the very people who know the most about education (e.g. education academics, teachers) are not the people in charge of it? So much experience yet such little power and influence.

What recent history tells us is that either the current education system is broken – and politicians who have steadily monopolised control over it are to blame for that – or it isn’t broken and there is therefore no need for any more of these grandstanding reforms.

Gove acts as if politicians wave a wand and everything will be alright. But for the last 40 years this has proven a lie. For many years now politicians have been making things worse, not better (and that includes Lord “I’ve been to Comprehensive School!” Adonis). It is now time for them to relinquish control.

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