The Government’s new proposals on English school examinations are a curious and dispiriting mix: at one and the same time disingenuous and confused in their inception, and self-defeating in terms of their declared aims.
The new English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) announced by Michael Gove this week have two much-trumpeted objectives. One is to make exams ‘harder’, so as to restore faith in a set of tests that many commentators (including the Education Secretary himself) have pronounced discredited. This will be achieved by abolishing individual modules, severely limiting the amount of retakes students can sit, and insisting that many fewer pupils achieve the ‘top’ grade. Their second aim is to get rid of continuous assessment and coursework, to reduce the amount of time teachers spend marking and re-marking coursework retakes. Exams taken at the end of each course will now constitute the entirety of the grade.
Now the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) which the EBCs replace had many flaws. Modularity could lead to subjects being diced and sliced into handy ‘bite-sized’ chunks. Academic historians, for instance, have long despaired of an undergraduate intake that knows a great deal about (say) the Tudors and the Nazis, but nothing of the years in between. The emphasis on coursework often saw teachers reading and re-reading scripts, again and again, distracting them from actually teaching. There was probably some outright cheating around the edges.
But the GCSE has also achieved much – a sunburst of academic progress and initiative that, some grade inflation aside, is worth keeping. There is absolutely no doubt that the main bulk of pupils today are better at self-directed learning, more confident about mixing opinions and ‘facts’, have more grasp of what ‘research’ might mean, are equipped with more relevant transferable skills and are just more able than they have ever been before. This hasn’t happened by accident. It’s happened because coursework has liberated those who were paralysed by fear in exams; because GCSEs talked about skills and abilities as well as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers; and demanded of young people that they stay in touch with the course throughout, rather than just at its beginning and end. There is a mountain of evidence that constant detailed feedback from teachers, the continuous build-up of knowledge and capacities as pupils work through a clearly-waymarked course, and being positive about achievements rather than just negative about failures has spread opportunity and a sense of the possible throughout the system.
How much better, then, to have reduced the amount of coursework in most core subjects – without eliminating it altogether. To have capped the number of module retakes without getting rid of modularity in its entirety – perhaps with tests and coursework at the end of GCSE year one as well as year two. To have insisted on more coursework being produced under controlled conditions, rather than allowing pupils to take it home for parental help. All of these very simple ideas would have addressed the problems that the Education Secretary says have moved him to rip up a generation of experience and progress. Exam reform would have been smoother, more consensual, grounded in evidence – and above all, they would have avoided stigmatising the qualifications of an entire generation (your correspondent included). At the moment, Mr Gove is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Except that such incremental reforms, making exams tougher and more watertight, certainly do not mark the limits of his ambitions. With all his nodding and winking to the right-wing press about limiting the numbers of ‘top’ passes, Mr Gove reveals that what he really wants to do is to place a cap on the numbers gaining each grade. This is known as ‘normative’ marking in the jargon, judging students against other exam candidates rather than an absolute standard. Although his Department’s consultation document is a little opaque on this point, he will have to place some numerical or percentage limits on the boundary of his new and ‘prestigious’ grade one. Otherwise he could never make a pledge to reduce the number of top grades in the first place to the ten per cent widely quoted in the press – and, in due course, he would have to face the reality that the numbers of those grade ones amongst an increasingly well-educated student body would increase just as quickly as GCSE A and A*s have done.
Here both the disingenuous and messy core of the project are exposed. This fudge on normative assessment is a way of indicating that he wants to sort the clever sheep from the non-academic goats, using a fixed and never-changing demarcation line that can’t be changed, while at the same time it acts as a temporary political compromise with his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Mrs Thatcher, a Gladstonian Liberal who believed in individual achievement and whose government brought in GCSEs in the first place, might well have disapproved of the reassertion of such a sceptical, depressing, antediluvian and ultimately Tory way of thinking in the place of her own neo-liberalism.
The greatest irony of all this is that the new emphasis on tests taken at the end of each course will do nothing to prepare young people for university study. They will be self-defeating if their objective is really to instil so-called ‘rigour’ and ‘discipline’ into young people’s thinking, better preparing them for higher study. For universities long ago abandoned such old-fashioned models – under pressure from both Conservative and Labour governments. The old ways, which saw students corralled into exam halls for an all-or-nothing week at the end of year three, have almost everywhere given way to choosing modules involving deep research, a mix of coursework essays and exams, and final marks given out on the basis of work in both years two and three of a standard undergraduate course.
In a few years EBC-qualified students will gape in horror at this emphasis on continuous effort, engagement and continual learning. It will look nothing like their school work, which will privilege the night-before swotters, those with good memories, the crisis-managers and the highly opinionated – people, in fact, who act and sound like members of the present Cabinet.
Mr Gove’s real problem is that he is stuck in a black-and-white mindset from the 1950s and 1960s. Tests; ‘rigour’; selectivity; chalk and talk; them and us; the academic and the vocational; the fast and the slow. They occupy central places in his thinking. But the world has moved on. England has moved on, exploding into a hopeful technicolour riot of many hues, directions, speeds and abilities. It is just a pity that our governors cannot see that – or see that there were less disingenuous, confused and ultimately self-defeating paths ahead of them.
Glen O’Hara is Reader in the History of Public Policy at Oxford Brookes University. He has written several books and articles on modern governance including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). He blogs on public policy and history, in a personal capacity, at publicpolicypast.blogspot.co.uk.