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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
books
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' is based on historical events
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
filmSir Ian McKellen will play retired detective in new film
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
'Molecular Man +1+1+1' by Jonathan Borofsky at Yorkshire Sculpture park
tv
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Trainee Recruitment Consultants For Multiple UK Offices

£18000 - £25000 per annum + DOE, OTE £40000: SThree: LONDON - BRISTOL - DUBLIN...

Subject Leader of ICT & Computing

£21588 - £36756 per annum + negotiable: Randstad Education Chelmsford: ICT/Com...

Foundation / Year 1 Teacher - Long Term - Salford

£90 - £130 per day + competitive rates, pension scheme: Randstad Education Man...

Long Term Primary Teacher - Oldham - Start September 2014

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Manchester Primary: Key Stage 1 Teache...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil