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Back to the Future with Michael Gove

June 22, 2012
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Following the riots of August 2011, the Economist writer Bagehot produced a fabulous article demonstrating that the crisis over wayward youth was one which had reoccurred in almost every generation in recorded memory. The piece, which tapped into Stanley Cohen’s theories of moral panic, demolished the knee-jerk view that this sort of public disorder was in any way a recent phenomenon.

Bagehot produced some enlightening quotations from throughout history, for example: the Daily Express of 1981 wrote how “over the past twenty years or so, there has been a revulsion from authority and discipline”, a court in 1951 concluded that “parents at this time, unfortunately, do not take sufficient care in bringing up their children, they expect someone else to be responsible” and the Times of 1892 warned that “our streets are actually not as safe as they were in the days of our grandfathers. We have slipped back to a state of affairs that would be intolerable even in Naples”.

I was reminded of Bagehot’s work whilst reading of Michael Gove’s proposals to reintroduce the O-level exams which were scrapped by the Thatcher government in the mid-80s. This policy leak (which – by the way – is the latest in a series of leaks which break the rules set out in paragraph 9.1 of the ministerial code) was accompanied by a flurry of discussion on the failures of the present educational system, how exams had gotten easier and that perhaps our “less-gifted” students might be better off accepting their fate in a two-tier system which marks them as lifetime under-achievers at a very early age. All of which I’m sure was of great comfort to those currently taking their GCSE exams after a lengthy period of revision, who generally have to wait until their results are released to be subjected to this level of condescension.

Gove’s rhetoric harks right back to the 1950s, which for a sizeable proportion of the population represents some sort of golden age in British society. It appeals particularly to older voters with a rather rose-tinted view of history. Gove also benefits from opinion polls which show that Labour have between a 25% and 47% lead over the Conservatives in the 18-24 demographic, so he can rest assured that those students whose academic record he is tarnishing are highly unlikely to have ever voted for him in the first place.

One of the most controversial aspects of the reform is the splitting of the exam system by ability. The Financial Times’ Christopher Cook is one educational expert highly critical of this move:

The GCSE’s strength is that it is a full-spectrum exam, measuring low to high ability. It includes questions designed to distinguish candidates that should get a G from candidates than deserve an F, as well as questions to filter A* candidates from those getting an A.

This is also its greatest PR weakness: it gets attacked by people citing the low-level questions. The Mail approvingly notes: “questions like ‘Would you look at the Moon with a microscope or a telescope?’ from science GCSEs will be a thing of the past.”

The benefit of this system is that you get comparable qualifications, and there is no need for schools to attempt to sift children, guessing who will finish up with less than a C. The GCSE exams themselves do that work for them.

O-levels and social mobility – FT

Perhaps the biggest impact of this change would be on social mobility. As Cook writes “the CSE will tend to be an exam for poorer children” with the effect of lowering aspirations amongst those selected to take the test, with the potential for many to simply give up on education at this stage. This regime would also provide a significant challenge for schools, who would be trusted to segregate the children correctly by ability.

As with Bagehot’s analysis of youths behaving badly, we must similarly ask whether concern over falling student attainment has also been viewed through a distorted lens of history. The Times Education Supplement published a fascinating piece in 2010 asking just that, and coming up with similar findings:

Cambridge Assessment’s archive shows that in 1858, when its ancestor body first set an exam, for a group of less than 100 school-leavers, the markers found they demonstrated “little indication of an acquaintance with the best elementary mathematics works”.

This trend continues across the twentieth century into the age of O-levels, which also didn’t fare too well during the time they were in-use, echoing much of the criticism of GCSEs we see today:

In 1984, The TES reported that “poor spelling dogs O-level English”, quoting Geoff Earnshaw, assistant secretary of the Associated Examining Board, who blamed “modern teaching methods” and the fact that pupils “watch television and listen to far more pop music”.

Yet TV, along with women’s magazines and cheap novelettes, was also blamed by examiners for the low standards in English O-level in 1955. Then they complained that “the meaning of paragraphs is unknown to many; the semi- colon has virtually disappeared and commas are scattered at random”.

For his book State Schools Since the 1950s, former headteacher Adrian Elliott found dozens of similar examples from examiners’ reports during that supposed golden era. Pupils kept using “of” instead of “have” in sentences such as “he should of done it” (O-level English, 1955); made spelling mistakes such as “deffinate”, “Brittain”, “polytitions” and “fivety” (O-level general paper, 1958); and, too often, “had no understanding of the subject matter of most questions” (A-level maths, 1960).

Amusing exam mistakes were often passed on by teachers to The TES. A collection of “exam howlers” printed in 1962 include, from biology O- level, “The dustbin is the place for refuge” and from English A-level, “The Friar preferred the company of baremaids”.

Times Education Supplement – The Test of Time

One other interesting aspect of the proposed changes is the implicitly acknowledged failure of competition in the exam board system, where six exam boards set papers and supposedly compete with each other to devise the easiest exam. This is to be replaced by a system in which one company has a monopoly over an individual test paper. For a capitalist political party who regularly espouse the benefits of regulation by the invisible hand of the free-market, this is a startling admission from the Government.

Whilst this failure of competition may be somewhat to blame for the increasing grades we see year-on-year, there are various other explanations which we need to take into account in order to see the full picture.

Some of the discrepancy – and perhaps why GCSEs are percieved to be less valuable – is down to the differences in the way the grades are awarded. As Francis Gilbert notes, O-levels are norm-referenced qualifications which means that “only a certain percentage will achieve an A grade, another given percentage a B grade and so on, regardless of the standards achieved by the pupils”. This is unlike GCSEs, where the grade is awarded based on the percentage scored and little else.

Additionally, we cannot discount the real possibility that students have become smarter in some ways, that teachers have become better at teaching the curriculum and that those taking part are now better prepared for their exams. As a basic analogy for this theory, consider that clear reasons exist as to why Olympic athletes continually break 100m sprint records and that this has nothing whatsoever to do with a redefinition of what measurement constitutes a meter.

Moreover, if the government is searching for an exam which more closely resembles the O-level, they need look no further than the iGCSE, which is already in use and has been developed in conjunction with universities to test the areas of knowledge formerly covered by the O-level examination. All of which convinces me that yesterday’s announcement is nothing more than a populist, crowd-pleasing name change with no real educational reform to back it up.

As Kenneth Durham of the HMC (which represents many of the leading private schools) makes clear, the Government should be incredibly cautious about any plans to reform secondary education:

A knee-jerk return to a nostalgic ‘golden age’ of O levels run by a state monopoly examination board is naïve and will suit nobody.

Kenneth Durham, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference

The question now is whether this leaked policy will be watered down over the next few months to placate the early critics, or whether it will go the way of Gove’s other eccentric ideas such as free bibles, the teaching of Roman numerals and the publicly-funded purchase of a new Royal yacht.

Given the chorus of opposition from across the political spectrum we have seen in the last 24 hours, including from the Liberal Democrats and even some in his own party, to get this policy through in its current form he will most certainly have a fight on his hands.

One Response to Back to the Future with Michael Gove

  1. Back to Work, Mr Cameron | Passing Nightmare on September 2, 2012 at 9:14 am

    […] talked a little about this before, but Cameron really should read this Economist piece which looks at the […]

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