Gove's new exams, only for the more academic students?

Henry Stewart's picture
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.



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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 09:05

If you chose to, Henry, you could see this the other way round.

Gove's position is that what you call the "traditional academic subjects" are a universal patrimony that can and should be shared by all, irrespective of class background. Denying students from disadvantaged backgrounds access to and experience of these subjects effectively locks them out from participation in much of the national culture, and particularly bars them from any hope of ever exercising any leadership in life. By tracking them onto 'easier' subjects, they are effectively being the objects of a selection process every bit as socially divisive as the eleven-plus selection. History, geography, modern languages, literature, science and maths should not be the preserve of the middle class.

Ensuring access to this curriculum is MORE democratic, MORE socially inclusive than the prevailing academic vs soft-option/vocational apartheid.

It's worth remembering that the EBacc suite of subjects are all part of the compulsory, common core of Finland's basic comprehensive curriculum.

Henry Stewart's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 09:20

I don't think I mentioned disadvantaged students or 'easier' subjects. Many of the students at my school that focus on art, design etc come from very advantaged backgrounds. Many who go to art college don't do so because they are not good at academic subjects but because they have chosen to instead of going to a Russell Group university. Easier? I would find doing Art or Music much tougher than Maths or History.

My point here is nothing to do with class but to do with recognising the different strengths of students and the different needs of our society. Focus on history and languages may have been appropriate in 1950 but I think our society's needs are more diverse now.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 09:38

You are absolutely right Henry. My three children are such different people yet the current 14-19 framework meant they entered a sort of sausage factory at 14+ and came out with very similar qualifications which didn't really play to their individual strengths and aptitudes.

One possibility would be that if there was a final qualification at 18 the 14- 19 curriculum could be freed up and who knows, pupils might be able to follow some programmes of study that don't necessarily lead to an exam at the end. Short courses in music, drama etc.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 09:27

A good article Henry.

A major problem is that the consultation paper still leaves a lot of key questions unanswered. There is, as you point out, no reference at all to what happens to the non-core subjects,many of which could never be described as easy and arguably are just as important to producing a well-rounded, educated person as geography. Sports disappeared quickly off the radar hasn't it?

There is a good deal in the paper which suggests that the issue has not been thought through properly. For example, the name 'English baccalaureate'.

Has nobody at the DfE considered that GCSE is the main 16+ examination in Wales and Northern Ireland (and taken in some Scottish independent schools) I am sure the name will go down a storm outside England.

Putting all the assessment into the end of year 11brings back memories to me of some of my pupils who were badly disadvantaged in the past by such a system: the hay fever or asthma sufferers or the girl whose father died (her mother was already dead) the night before her English 'O' level.

I think its important that people should take part in the consultation process and not assume the die is cast. If we can't influence Gove and those like him there may be other politicians out there who are prepared to listen.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 09:33

I think Wales and Northern Ireland have already indicated that they may forge their own separate paths. The Welsh Assembly government started a review into 14-19 before the GCSE re-grading fiasco. Also Wales already has a Welsh Baccalaureate. The Celtic fringe seems to be a step ahead of Mr G.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 19:09

WHere are these politicians that are prepared to listen and offer a real alternative that will truly improve results across the board for all abilities? Labour is completely feeble on this. Twigg is a joke.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 09:31

Focus on history and languages may have been appropriate in 1950 but I think our society’s needs are more diverse now.

Completely back to front.

In 1950 Britain still had a vast empire and could arrogantly assume (egged on by a somewhat self-congratulatory historical narrative) that if Johnny Foreigner wanted to trade with the UK, then JF would jolly well learn English.

Today we have a much sharper need to understand our society and the wider world and how it has come to be as it is. And we need much greater understanding of other cultures too.

As for Art - I can't see it is being downgraded or marginalized in any way by the new arrangements. Ditto Music.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 09:35

Sir Mike Tomlinson, interviewed on Radio 4 Today, was "largely positive" about the proposed changes. He said he was in favour of there being only one exam board for each subject and the phasing out of modules and "resits". These are, however, already on their way out as pupils starting GCSE courses this September will take all their modules at the end of 2 years.

However, Sir Mike had serious reservations which seemed to contradict his "largely positive" remark. He said there was much detail which needed consideration:

(a) the new exam should be available to the whole range of ability (Henry's point above).
(b) some subjects available at GCSE, such as art, dance, music, cannot be tested in a single 3-hour examination. The interviewer said Gove didn't appear to like these subjects, implying they were second-rate. Sir Mike said they were very popular subjects. He added that the Olympics had brought the importance of dance and music to the fore.
(c) The interviewer asked if the exam system was reformed too often which sometimes resulted in qualifications being offered which became duff ones, eg the Diploma which had been introduced with much hype four years ago. Sir Mike answered that this went right back to 1952 when School Certificate was replaced by O and A levels. He said we had a "qualification jungle". What was needed was a systematic and sensible system.

Unfortunately, Sir Mike didn't have time to say that this "systematic and sensible system" needed time to plan, trial and evaluate - he had suggested that ten years would be a sensible time scale in his 2004 report.

What we are about to have is a backward-looking, anachronistic system which devalues many subjects (the "arty" or practical ones) and puts England out-of-step with most major countries (see faqs above).

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 10:05

Radio 4 Today (17 September at 2.36 mins): John Bangs, NUT, and Conservative peer, Baroness Perry, debated the proposed exam changes.

Bangs: Announcement was “textbook example of how to make a throughout mess of examination reform”. Gove insults achievements of young people. He’s failed to consult parents, teachers or pupils. He has no evidence that there’s been grade inflation. England should do the same as is happening in Wales – initiate a thorough review of 14-19 education.

Perry: Gove on right track. She welcomes an exam which will command greater confidence. Present exam has lost the confidence of universities, further education and employers.

Interviewer: There was a tendency to “tinker and fiddle” with the exam system. He asked how do we want to structure 14-19 exam systems – academic/vocational? Issues of grading and accessibility.

Perry: Exams have enormous impact on life chances. The new exam would discriminate between attainment levels. It would also address different skills eg academic, also practical skills such as dance.

Bang: The Government has contributed to a decline in confidence in the exam system. But there is no evidence to support this view.

UPDATE 15.25: The last sentence is ambiguous. It should have read:

Bangs: The Government has contributed to a decline in confidence in the exam system. But there is no evidence to support Government claims that exam standards have declined.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 14:24

Gove says a new exam is needed to combat "grade inflation". But there is no conclusive evidence to show that the rise in outcomes is due to grade inflation. See FAQs above for further discussion and links: "Has there been grade inflation in GCSEs and A levels?"

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