More change for schools leaves George Muirhead wondering if Michael Gove’s plans to overhaul the exam system is now all about sorting sheep from goats.
The ink has hardly dried on the pages of the new term and the Government has announced a radical change to the examination system for our 16 year olds. In essence, having spent the last two years undermining and denigrating the GCSE, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has announced the scrapping of this test and its replacement with an English Baccalaureate, or EBacc for short. Introducing the measure alongside Nick Clegg, Gove announced, "It is time for the race to the bottom to end." He went on to say that the current exams represent drift, decline and dumbing down, something of an indictment of our current GCSE students achievements, never mind those who will be taking the exam until its replacement in 2017.
This examination is a fundamental shift away from the current system of coursework-based assessment, spread over a number of years of a student's secondary school life, plus an exam. The EBacc will consist of examinations in English and Maths with an option on three separate sciences, plus history, geography and languages. The gold standard of 5 A-C's will be replaced by a percentage score in the exam, this is likely to result in a cap of probably 10 per cent in the number of students who can get the highest scores. School league tables based on GCSEs will be replaced with a yet-to-be-defined alternative. Should a student not pass the exam then they will be given a record of achievement which many believe makes the end result a two-tier system with students who end up failing the exam having no useful qualification.
Unless the Government is keeping its evidence base secret, the change seems to have been born more out of the political expediency and compromise of the coalition, rather than any well considered approach to the important task of reporting on the level of achievement of our young people at 16. A comprehensive review of exams at the end of secondary school was carried out by Mike Tomlinson, an ex Chief Inspector of Schools, in 2005. After considerable consultation and consideration he achieved what many said would be impossible, a consensus of support from all parties. This review was never implemented, leaving us with the current proposals, which are out for a three-month consultation period
The debate over whether this is a positive or negative change goes right to the heart of what we, as a society, believe education is about – should it celebrate the diverse achievements of our students or simply separate them into sheep and goats?
Lets nail one canard to the mast, if I'm not mixing my metaphors – teachers are not against testing or competition. Clearly an important role of education is to ensure that students and employers are appropriately matched. Despite the insistence of some parts of the media, often driven by a London-centric view of the world, schools understand the need to test and the advantages to parents and employers of getting a snapshot of their child's current knowledge. Assessment and testing is used on a daily basis in schools and is normally, 'formative' as it helps teachers to form the next element of learning needed for their students to scaffold understanding. The soon-to-be-replaced GCSE and the new EBacc are called 'terminal' or 'summative' assessments as they sum up the current knowledge and skills of a pupil.
Mr Gove comes clearly from the Gradgrind school of Education. You may remember in Dickens' Hard Times, an appropriate title for the current state of the country, he proclaimed that children should learn 'Facts!' The new Ebacc test is a return to the 'memory man' view of knowledge, namely the more you can remember the cleverer you are. He is turning the combined knowledge and learning of a pupil over a number of years into a three-hour test of what the student can remember. Many people believe that this is quite right and the sooner we return to good old-fashioned testing of facts the better. This is to ignore the ever-changing world which we are trying to prepare our students for. The advent of Google and access to knowledge on the World Wide Web means you can actually find the answer to any question or problem you need solving. In surveys most employers want people who have a good knowledge of reading, writing and numeracy, but who also are resourceful, resilient and are flexible. The future will not be the same as the past and sadly this is a concept that our current Secretary of State fails to grasp. In his statement to the House he proclaimed the laudable need to "equip children for the 21st century", he is right in this ambition but wrong in attempting to deliver it with an examination system based on a 19th century philosophy of education and testing.