Oxford head of admission launches vehement attack on Gove’s exam plans – they could “wreck” education.

Janet Downs's picture
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Government reforms to A levels are “another great example of the Government’s tendency to meddle in things they should probably really leave alone.”

Mike Nicholson, head of admissions to Oxford University, Westminster Education Forum, October 2013

There was “widespread concern” that Gove’s enthusiasm for reforming GCSEs and A levels simultaneously “is going to just wreck the English education system,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson, who has no record of criticising Government policies, believes efforts to encourage disadvantaged young people to apply to Oxford will be held back by these reforms.  There was “limited evidence” that A levels needed to be changed and he said the drive towards exams at the end of a 2-year course would prompt a move to other qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) which assessed students during the course.  Caroline Jordan, chair of the Girls’ School Association, also predicted that schools would choose IB.

Mike Griffiths, former Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) president, said the Government’s ideas for exams were “a solution in search of a problem”.

The Department for Education (DfE) wheeled out the OECD Adult Skills Survey to justify Gove’s exam reforms: “The OECD’s sobering findings on literacy and numeracy last week demonstrate the need to tackle grade inflation and restore confidence and rigour in exams.”  But in April this year The Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment (OUCEA) published a report summarising evidence about examination systems and found grade inflation at GCSE had not been established.  And the Government bears much of the responsibility for undermining confidence in the English exam system which is still respected elsewhere in the world.

If the Government uses OECD to justify its reforms then it should also take heed of other OECD comments:

1         There’s too much emphasis on exam results in England.  This risks teaching-to-the-test, “gaming” and neglecting other important skills.  Pupils who are taught just to pass exams aren’t likely to have the skills to apply what they’ve learnt – and English 16-24 year-olds, educated during a time when emphasis on test results has risen, failed to apply literacy and numeracy skills in the OECD Adult Skills Survey.

2         England was one of 6 countries where “social background has a major impact on literacy skills.”  This is what the Government should focus on not fiddling with the exam system.  The Pupil Premium is a step in the right direction but even this is interpreted as bribery in the Daily Mail.

3         The Adult Skills Survey contained recommendations for all countriesThe Government should study these instead of using the survey only for propaganda purposes.

There’s no doubt that opposition is becoming increasingly louder – and it’s not just the usual suspects, those “Marxists” and “Enemies of Promise” that Gove goes on about.  The headlong rush to catastrophic changes to the exam system in England should be halted.

And then the real reform – phasing out high-stakes exams at 16 and moving towards graduation at 18 – should begin.  This real reform, as opposed to one which is likely to end in meltdown, is something the Labour party should begin to consider.  It would not only appeal to the academics and heads who are increasingly concerned about Gove's exam meddling but to parents worried sick about the type of exams and education their secondary-age children are likely to have to endure.
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