It was open season for opponents of Michael Gove when the Education Secretary announced he was dropping his plans for a new exam – the English Baccalaureate Certificate – to replace widely discredited GCSEs. He also abandoned his proposal to replace competing exam boards with a single body per academic subject. Mr Gove's shadow on the Labour benches talked loudly of humiliating climbdowns and an exam policy left in total shambles, mocking the "back of an envelope" approach to reform.
Certainly there was formidable opposition to the EBC – which was trumpeted by Mr Gove, last September, as the biggest overhaul of education in a generation. Headteachers, school inspectors, teaching unions, business leaders, even the qualifications regulator all expressed deep reservations. The final straw appears to have been last week's "red light" warning from the Conservative-led Education Select Committee, urging the Government to slow down and rethink. Meanwhile, of course, the Liberal Democrats consistently disapproved of the reintroduction of a two-tier system which might humiliate teenagers who were not academic enough to sit the new exams.
But those who have been enjoying Mr Gove's discomfort should peer through the politics to the educational substance. The idea behind the EBC was to make the exam system more demanding. The bite-sized learning and superficial knowledge of coursework and modular assessments was to be replaced with more demanding extended writing in English and history, more problem-solving in maths and science, and a focus on end-of-course exams involving longer questions. All of that can – and now will – be introduced within the existing GCSE system.
Indeed, that rigour can now be extended beyond the five academic areas of the EBC – English, maths, science, languages and history or geography – into the full range of GCSE subjects. And that is not the only concession to the critics who, justifiably, lamented the omission of music, say, or art from the new system. The decision to expand the league table metric measuring the number of A to C grades in core academic subjects to include three extra, perhaps non-traditional, ones is also a significant change.
Mr Gove's decision to give up on plans to select a single exam board per subject is less welcome. The proposal was a good one: the current system, with competition between providers, encourages boards to set ever easier papers, exerting a downward pressure which partly explains the grade inflation that has dogged Britain's exams for many years. The problem with the scheme is one of practicality. The reform has fallen foul of European Union procurement rules and competition law, which would have left the new system open to a challenge in the courts. Mr Gove must now look for ways around the obstacles.
More than anything, however, the Education Secretary must learn the lesson of his latest policy retreat. His vision and drive are truly commendable. But he displays a dangerous tendency to shoot from the hip. The EBC debacle is a case in point. In fact, the decisions decried as humiliating U-turns were sensible ones: the core of the policy remains intact, and Mr Gove, if anything, showed a sensible flexibility in altering his reforms subject to consultation. But by setting out his plans with such bombast in the first place, giving them all the weight of a fait accompli, he set himself up for a far greater fall than was warranted. It is a trait that risks undermining his otherwise formidable effectiveness. And, amid the wreckage of the EBC, it is upon that that he should ponder.
- More about: