What to make of the new government proposals for exams at age 16? It is hard to work out, from the widespread media coverage, what will be included. The actual consultation paper
does not, for instance, include any mention of 3 hour exams, repeatedly referred to in the media. The widely reported proposal that the new exams could be taken at different ages seems quite a good idea but the paper simply suggests it will happen "in the same way that some students do not currently attempt GCSE at age 16" (section 4.5).
However what the consultation paper repeatedly stresses is the focus on a core of academic subjects: English, Maths, Science, History, Geography and a Language. Maths is mentioned 34 times. History is mentioned 14 times. Neither Music or Art or Religious Education, or any non-core subject, gets a single reference.
A Traditional Focus
And this is surely the continued problem with this government's approach. The focus is on the traditional academic subjects, with the implication that other subjects are not important. This is fine for those students who strength lies in those subjects, but what of the others? What of the artistic and creative? What of those strong in the more physical subjects?
At my school we are very proud of the students who get into the top universities. But we are equally proud of those who get into the top arts colleges. And I would argue that, with the importance of the UK's creative industries and the centrality of design in the modern world, that those artistic and creative skills are possibly more important for UK business.
The English Bacc subjects (with students taking 2 English exams and 2 Science) takes up 7 student choices, leaving only one or two choices for other subjects. It seems to be case of one size fits all, rather than the personalised learning agenda we hear so much about. The consultation suggests all students may have to do that core of 7, stating "these subjects represent an academic foundation which provides a secure base on which to build further study, vocational learning or an apprenticeship" (section 4.9). So will students only be able to study non-core subjects or vocational learning once they have completed an English Bacc?
What about the different needs of different students?
Gove and his advisers remain stuck in the belief that there is one set of superior subjects, being those that prepare students for traditional university courses. There is no understanding of either the different needs of different students or of the different needs of the UK economy to that of fifty years ago. Gove started claiming he would increase choice and freedom. instead he is in the process of laying down possibly the most prescriptive curriculum we have ever seen in secondary education.
Further the consultation repeatedly expresses concern for lower achievers, commenting for instance that "the current structure of GCSEs fails lower attaining students". (section 3.5) It also refers to how the foundation level of most GCSEs, with its maximum C grade, limits opportunity for students who take them.
However I can find nothing in the paper to address the need of those students. There is much talk of greater rigour in the exams, and much stress on the need for higher standards. How then will the new qualifications meet the needs of the "lower attaining" students. What it does say is that "The new qualification should therefore provide greater assurance of literacy and numeracy, in English language and mathematics, than a C grade in the current GCSE". (section 5.23) So it will presumably be harder. It is not clear how this will help the "lower attaining".
We need a system designed for all, not for the few
So we will get an exam system geared to those strong in core academic subjects. There seems to be no help either for those who are less academic or whose ability lies outside the English Bacc core. That is the weakness. What we need is an approach that recognises the different needs and the different strengths of different students. And one that doesn't restrict our education to what was seen as central when Gove was at school.