Can we reach consensus on secondary reform?

Conor Ryan considers the implications of last week’s announcements by Michael Gove.

Last Thursday’s unexpected U-turn by Education Secretary Michael Gove over his plans to replace GCSEs was presented by some as a sign that the most sure-footed cabinet minister in the coalition had come unstuck.

Yet a closer look at what actually happened suggests that though his plans may not have had the full rebranding he envisaged, they remain rather more intact than commentators have suggested.

While reformed GCSEs will no longer be known as EBCs, other changes announced last week could still have a profound effect on schools, what they teach and how they are assessed.

Alongside the confessional appearance in the Commons, Gove also unveiled his plans for the national curriculum, a radical change in the key league table measure for GCSEs and confirmed his plans for those exams to remain linear and become more demanding.

The draft national curriculum makes little change to range of subjects that students take – computing replaces ICT, but PSHE, citizenship and PE remain statutory requirements, even if their programmes of study are sharper and less prescriptive.

The level of prescription in subjects like history – which is now wholly chronological – and English which has a level of detail on grammar unseen since the literacy hour – stands in sharp contrast to the notion that schools would be increasingly free to decide for themselves what they would do. Teachers are freer to decide how to teach, but are much more circumscribed in what they must teach, at least until the age of 14 (and, at least for core subjects, to 16).

In that context, it was particularly surprising that Gove dropped plans to move towards a single exam board for each GCSE syllabus. He may have done so on the advice of Ofqual and worries about European competition law, but it was a reform that had wide support outside the exam boards and should be revisited.

The context for the new Gove curriculum was set out in a speech to the Social Market Foundation last Tuesday, where his belief that a core body of knowledge should lie at the heart of schools was set out more sharply than ever before, with the Conservative Secretary of State choosing the Italian Marxist father of Euro-Communism, Antonio Gramsci as his chief witness, alongside more familiar contemporary advocates such as the American academic E.D. Hirsch.

At the same time, Gove is proposing a number of changes to the league tables, which could have even more wide-ranging impacts on what schools teach.

Instead of measuring schools primarily on five good GCSEs – at C grade or above – including English and Maths, they will be measured on English and Maths grade Cs and on an average point score based on a student’s best eight subjects.

What might all this mean for social mobility and for disadvantaged students? On the one hand, there is a lot to be said for bringing greater clarity to the body of knowledge that children should learn. The curriculum had, arguably, lost the clarity it had in 2000 and earlier versions, and many will welcome this. It is also right to encourage greater breadth – and that would be welcome at A-level as well as GCSE, as Peter Lampl has argued recently.

The challenge – and test – for the new curriculum will be the extent to which it is adopted by academies, the 50 per cent of secondary schools that are free to choose most of their own curriculum, and the extent to which today’s parents expect them to adopt it.

There is a perfectly good argument – as Gove made in his SMF speech – that children need a body of knowledge if they are to benefit fully from acquiring the research and study skills that most teachers – and the evidence from the Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit – suggest can play a big role in boosting attainment.   A false dichotomy has been created between knowledge and skills, and both need to be seen as an important part of children’s educational development.

Of course, for students who go to university, it is right that they should be encouraged to take a strong suite of academic subjects, and it is to be hoped that the new GCSEs have the rigour to bring an end to the soul-destroying annual ritual of criticising the achievements of young people at the moment when they learn how well they have done in their exams.

Yet a big gap in the Government’s thinking lies in what happens after the age of 14 to those for whom a more vocational or technical education would be more motivating. EBCs may be gone but the EBacc remains, and will lie at the heart of the 8-GCSE measure in the new league tables. For students taking 8 GCSEs, it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to take five EBacc subjects, and they now have a chance to have achievements in other subjects like art, technology and religious education recognised. This has pleased those lobbying for such recognition.

Kenneth Baker’s University Technical Colleges start students on technical and vocational pathways from age 14. Further education colleges will be able to recruit from that age. Yet because of the undoubted abuses of vocational equivalences in the past, all technical and vocational qualifications, regardless of depth and intensity, have equal weight in the league tables.

The Government still has to find a satisfactory way of recognising the achievements of those who take a more technical curriculum, and it should use the reformed league tables to do so. To argue this point is to be neither Luddite nor defeatist, but it is to recognise that for some students – a minority maybe but at all ability levels – an academic curriculum post-14 will not enable them to fulfil their potential.

There is a real chance to develop a lasting consensus on education, one that outlives changes in Government, and one that caters for the needs of every child at different phases of their education.  Last week’s suite of announcements could herald a different approach. For that to happen, the consultations on the curriculum and league tables need to be as open to reasonable change as that on GCSE reform turned out to have been.

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