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Gove gets a Grade C (now 6)

GCSEs are a sideshow in the larger business of education reform

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has recently spoken about the tendency of opponents of his school reforms to protest that it is “all too much” and “too fast”. He is right to suggest that these are the last resorts of people who have lost the argument about the principle of change. And he is right to adopt the most unconservative posture of the urgent reformer.

The urgency is welcome, because, although schooling has improved greatly in England – and especially in London – in the past two decades, it still fails to give too many children the chance to fulfil their possibilities.

The story of the reform of GCSEs is one of the mountain of Mr Gove’s reforming zeal producing the mouse of yesterday’s small changes. Having started with the wild rhetoric of going back to O-levels, the Education Secretary has ended up with some minor changes to just three GCSE subjects, English language, English literature and Maths. The curricula have been updated. Modular courses and controlled assessments (coursework under exam conditions) will be scrapped, and resits limited.

Most of these changes are sensible. The exams did need to be modernised and made more rigorous.

Otherwise, a lot of things are being renamed for the sake of it. There is more guff about “learning outcomes” and it will not be long before they are known as “learnings”; “irrational” numbers in Maths are now “surds”; and the grades will be called 9-1 instead of A*-G in a futile attempt to shake off the stigma attached to grades below C. However, Mr Gove has misdirected his reforming impulse. GCSEs were never an important failing. There are many more important questions that need to be addressed: above all, how to spread the momentum of school improvement outwards from London. Free schools, to which Mr Gove has devoted a great deal of energy, are a small and controversial part of this. Sponsored academies and the kind of non-academy school improvement seen in boroughs such as Tower Hamlets are much more important.

Mr Gove should concentrate his admirable reforming energies on this, rather than on a grand plan to restructure exams, which has ended in a minor and incremental change.