“Home truths for a fraud……….the Gove effect part II.”

Our current display of student work.

(With apologies to Robert Browning)

I cannot remember a cabinet reshuffle being anticipated so eagerly by my colleagues.  It is not often that you hear staff asking each other questions in the corridor such as, “Have you heard what’s happening?”,  “Has he gone?”,  but such was the excited tenor of events during the recent reshuffle.  Our hope were dashed, Mr Gove remains.  I have even heard one Tory spokesman suggesting that he is doing a good job.  Well the events of the summer may make you think about that in a different  light.  The secret seems to be based on two ideas;  if you answer any question carefully enough you can usually get away with it and if you say something simple for long enough everyone starts to assume that it is true.   I am quite sure that the government did not directly tell the exam authorities to toughen up the grade boundaries but, call me cynical  I can’t imagine that the feeling wasn’t made clear.  Evidence technique one.  Trot out a phrase like, “grade inflation” over and over again, couple it with the question, “It cannot be right that grade inflation should be taking place, can it?” and before you know where you are it is a commonly held assumption that it is true.

In case you should be in any doubt let me start out by saying that the current exam system is anything but easy.  To do well you have to learn a body of knowledge covering a very wide field and you have to demonstrate considerable personal skill in completing a demanding project over a lengthy period of time, not forgetting that you may be handling four or five similar projects at the same time.  Trust me, by comparison my O level was a piece of cake.  Now let us turn to an obvious stupidity that has escaped the commentators.  Education has been a priority of successive governments who have spent large sums of money on it.  This money has been coupled with some national strategies which, it turns out, were often based on some sate of the art thinking about education.  Part of this was a drive to develop the professional standards of teachers across the country the like of which has never been seen.  Given these factors you might reasonably expect to see some results from your efforts and as the only readily available measure seems to be GCSE results it does appear to be rather an expected result that grades might improve.  Have I missed something?

Of course I have.  It is beyond  reasonable expectation that any minister could make a rational statement along the lines of, “Of course my predecessor did some very good things which we are going to continue although we hope to develop them even further.”    Instead we have, “Previous governments have always waited too long to change things, we are not going to make that mistake.”    You might be excused from making the connection between the apparent need to act before thinking and the sort of education that might lead a minister  to conclude that this was a useful approach to a major aspect of our national life.  You might also wonder at the notion that this calibre of mind was a good argument for returning to that education system.  I just want to know why nobody has asked these questions in the public domain.    Following the debacle of the summer exam grades with professional organisations and local authorities threatening legal action a crude summary of the government’s response might be, “See, I told you they were rubbish, now about my idea for an English Baccalaureate.”

Hold on, let’s review that story.  The secretary of state announces it in a speech as a new measure of school progress, throwing schools across the country into chaos and stuffing up the choices of a year group of children.  A Parliamentary select committee reviews the decision and points out the major failings in the thinking, not least the fact that said secretary of state seems not to have realised that the certificates he promised to award would cost some money to print and distribute, money he had not budgeted for.  (Really good idea changing everything before you knew what you were doing.)  At the moment this sounds like a complete fiasco;  major policy announcement, immediate and significant impact across the country, no chance of successful delivery, stuffed the education of a whole year group.  Guess what, we are going to rescue the idea now that we have ‘proved’ that GCSEs are useless.  How long before this is triumphed as an educational breakthrough?

At this point I should say that I am a great admirer of the International Baccalaureate, after which Mr Gove chose to name his idea.  I would be very interested in seeing a curriculum based on those principles but incorporating the best of the work done in this country over the last ten years.  However, don’t get your hopes up, what we are looking at is a return to O levels.  Just to refresh your memory, ( though if you are old enough to have got some of these your memory won’t need refreshing because they were so good!)  O levels were sat, but not passed by, a small percentage of the most able students.  They were designed as a selection measure for university education.  Do we really want to return to that?  A useful question that appeared in the comment on one article was this, if they were so good why did we change them?

Most of my colleagues have fallen back on the idea that it will be some time before these new exams are with us, that even then it will only be in some subjects, that a further reshuffle might save us all, that another election might put paid to the idea or that they might have retired by then.  All of these may be true but the truly inexcusable thing is that children’s lives are being played with.  Working with a group of  pupils writing personal educational plans; assessments of what they find useful for their learning and what they would rather that teachers did not do, I was shocked to find a not inconsiderable degree of vitriol directed at Mr Gove and the so called EB.  This is a generation of voters who recognise what has been done to them and have no hesitation in apportioning the blame.    Now I wonder how Mr Gove would react if he knew that?


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