Trevor Fisher: 'Stop playing politics with the school curriculum'

The Government says it's cracking down on 'soft' exam subjects. But the emphasis on league tables also pressures schools to make the wrong choices, argues Trevor Fisher

It is a fact of school life that controversial government policies are often announced, unobserved, at the end of July. It would be a pity if the changes to school league tables, unveiled on 20 July, evaded close examination. Consultation on the plans closes at the end of September. With little time remaining, educationalists need to get their skates on to influence what Michael Gove and his team are planning.

On the surface, the changes appear only to remove vocational qualifications from school league tables at 16-plus. The move comes in the wake of the Wolf report into vocational qualifications in schools, which justifiably criticised the explosion of vocational subjects – the GNVQ and its successor, BTEC – at Key Stage 4. Professor Alison Wolf blamed this on the drive to climb league tables.

The exam figures are disturbing. Before their approval in 2004 as "equivalent" to GCSE, only 1,882 students gained Level 2 passes – the crucial A*-C grades at GCSE in vocational subjects. But by 2009-10, 462,182 students gained these passes. It is hard to quarrel with Professor Wolf's comment that: "... schools have been under enormous pressure to pile up league table points. When any qualification under the English sun can contribute these, the pernicious effects are obvious." True, but it is hardly the fault of the teachers. Both league tables and allowing vocational equivalents were political decisions.

There can be no doubt the explosion in equivalents was driven by league tables, not the needs of the students. Michael Gove wrote in the introduction to the Wolf report that it was "morally wrong" that for league table reasons, pupils were taking courses of "little or no value". In his speech in June to the National College for School Leaders, he went further, arguing that: "... the introduction of large numbers of vocational qualifications to the GCSE performance tables has led to widespread gaming of qualifications. The 4,000 per cent increase in the number of such qualifications taken in just six years is testimony to this."

Gove chose to call this "gaming". This was a deeply cynical development whatever it is called. It raised concerns among observers across the political spectrum. Anastasia de Waal of the conservative think-tank Civitas notably worked with Labour MP Tristram Hunt on the issue of excluded academic qualifications at 16-plus. Terry Wrigley, a government critic, raised questions about the job market. He wrote: "It is important to raise the question of the 'street value' of these replacement qualifications: were employers likely to regard, say, a GNVQ in computing and a C in Art as the equivalent of five A* to C grades?"

Part of the answer is hinted at by the Department for Education (DfE) which said that future qualifications must "offer pupils progression into a broad range of qualifications post-16 rather than a limited number in one or two occupational areas". Or to put it simply, some vocational subjects are dead-end qualifications leading to dead-end jobs. How could these have been regarded officially as being as good as or better than GCSEs?

The new proposals are, alas, hardly radical. The consultation will lead to new structures operating from September 2012. The new options will not be examined until 2014 and the first of the new league tables will come out in January 2015. Thus equivalences will still be used in 2011, 2012 and 2013 league tables. The immediate change is only to limit the number of equivalences that can be used from 3 to 2 over the next three years. This means the league tables will continue for at least three years to offer the dead-end qualifications criticised by Professor Wolf. How these can have credibility in a situation where the English Baccalaureate (the "Ebac") – a purely academic framework – is the headline indicator for the media is an open question.

2014 is a long way off, and it is clear Gove or his successor will be under pressure to deliver league-table successes – indeed with the National Challenge threshold for "failing" schools being raised to 35 per cent of students getting A*-C or equivalent, and then to 50 per cent by 2015, the pressure to gain headline increases in pass rates will intensify. There must be real doubt whether the Government will hold the line as memories fade about what Professor Wolf wrote. Moreover, the key factor in all of this is league tables.

Schools did not opt for soft vocational exams for fun. It is not their fault that they have been "gaming" – the educational equivalent of the professional foul. As Alison Wolf pointed out, they have been under "enormous pressure to pile up league table points". In theory, they will be free to do so for at least three years. But with Ebac in place, another set of pressures is on schools.

Despite the official line that Ebac is optional, in fact it is the new set of criteria for school success. Most will rush to embrace it. Thus schools will have gone from a situation where any qualification under the sun counted to one where only five subject groups matter. The wild swings of emphasis from one extreme to another are indefensible, and politically driven.

The situation is unacceptable. While soft vocational subjects are pernicious, and should be phased out with all deliberate speed, an unbalanced curriculum driven by Ebac is equally as bad. The English system has failed to deal with vocational and technical education for a century and a half, and a combination of Ebac and league tables may close down the options again.

With the Government clearly favouring a purely academic education, schools are under pressure to abandon vocational subjects completely. Others will seek to maintain the vocational subjects as they are currently allowed to do, but risk becoming second-rate in the eyes of the media. Is a new grammar-secondary modern divide looming? If schools are then tested on how many students get to Russell Group universities, another controversial idea floated during the summer break, there can be no doubt which schools would be successful and which would fail.

Educationalists should scrutinise the plans rigorously. The impression that equivalents are being rapidly phased out is incorrect. Vocational subjects are being reined in, but not abolished. Moreover, the idea that in the world of Ebac schools can make completely free choices for their students is not credible. League tables rule, and what is counted in league tables is crucial. A divided system could develop unless the consultation process produces a balanced curriculum for the future, together with league tables which are fair and objective. Scrutiny is needed both before and after the September deadline to establish exactly what is being decided.

Can Gove and his ministers end gaming in secondary schools?

Trevor Fisher is a historian, lecturer and writer on educational issues

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