Comments by source close to Gove become more unhinged as opposition grows to exam reform agenda

Janet Downs's picture
There is a “cursed focus on ‘access’ which has poisoned intelligent discussion of [the] real problem, which is too many rubbish schools,” a source close to Secretary of State, Michael Gove, told TES.

The Government constantly attacks state schools for not sending enough pupils to “top” universities. But one of Gove’s sources thinks that concentrating on access is a toxic irritation fouling talk about what s/he describes in impeccable professional language as “too many rubbish schools”.

“Rubbish schools” is an imprecise description. If it means schools judged inadequate, then this applies to 2% of English schools at their last Ofsted inspection. If it means schools judged satisfactory, then the figure rises to 30%. Under the new inspection regime, the satisfactory judgement has been replaced by “requires improvement”. But this description can’t be applied retrospectively to schools judged satisfactory in the past as schools may have improved since their last inspection. And “requires improvement” does not necessarily mean that a school is “rubbish”.

This indiscreet comment by Gove’s intimate informant was in response to questions by TES about the growing dissent surrounding Gove’s exam reform agenda. This is opposed by universities, heads of Ofqual past and present, two of England’s exam boards, the Tory chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, teaching unions, academic experts and two recently-departed Department for Education (DfE) senior officials. One of these, Jon Coles, was DfE director general for education standards until early 2012. Coles, now chief executive of academy and independent school chain, United Learning, has called for a complete overhaul of the exam system with exams at 16 being replaced by graduation at 18. He told TES that the exam system was an education “tectonic plate” which, if moved around too rapidly would cause upheaval. “You risk having serious, serious problems,” he said.

A DfE spokesperson stoutly defended the proposed EBCs (English Baccalaureate Certificates). S/he told TES, “The new EBC will be robust, rigorous and relevant, to match the best education systems in the world.”

But the replacement for GCSEs, dubbed Gove Levels, does not match the graduation systems in most of the rest of the world (see faqs above). They are unimaginative, backward-looking and out-of-touch.

When proposals for an Advanced Baccalaureate (ABac) were leaked, another “source close to Michael Gove” tried to rebut criticisms by saying “ABac discussions are just on the drawing board. No decisions have been made. They would only be a league table thing.”

So a seismic shift in exams at 18+ is not being introduced to bring England in line with most of the rest of the world but in order to produce extra data for the “league table thing”. The extra work which will be required for graduation – an extended essay, voluntary activities – are not being introduced because they are worthy activities in their own right (and a feature of the exam systems in other countries). They are being proposed because they will contribute to the “league table thing”.

Last year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (1) warned that the excessive emphasis of exam grades in England risked having negative consequences on education. Now it appears that major changes to the exam system (EBacc, EBCs, ABac) are being introduced to satisfy the “league table thing”.

But the “league table thing” is not education.

(1) OECD Economic Survey UK 2011, not freely available on the internet but details of how to obtain a copy are here.

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Brian Grey's picture
Sat, 20/10/2012 - 15:06

'Despite sharply rising school spending per pupil during the last ten years, improvements in schooling outcomes have been limited in the United Kingdom.

Average PISA scores, measuring cognitive skills of 15–year olds, have been stagnant and trail strong performers such as Finland, Korea and the Netherlands.

The use of benchmarking in England is more widespread than in virtually any other
OECD country. Transparent and accurate benchmarking procedures are crucial for measuring student and school performance, but “high–stake” tests can produce perverse incentives.

The extensive reliance on National Curriculum Tests and General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) scores for evaluating the performance of students, schools and the school system raises several concerns.

Evidence suggests that improvement in exam grades is out of line with independent indicators of performance, suggesting grade inflation could be a significant factor.

The unequal educational outcomes partly reflect a complex, multi–layered and poorly
functioning deprivation funding system for primary and secondary schools in England.

The implicit compensation for disadvantaged students that the government provides to local authorities is only partially spent on disadvantaged schools and students.

This mismatch partly reflects the complexity of the funding system.

By moving to a less complex system and introducing an explicit pupil premium, the
government has started to address these problems.

To address these shortcomings the government should:

Further develop value–added indicators of schools’ educational output to provide
more relevant information to parents, students and regulators.

Increase the emphasis within inspection on teaching and learning including
through more lesson observation and assessment of pupils’ work, so that
inspectors consider this evidence alongside attainment data in reaching their
judgements on the effectiveness of schools.

Develop methods to measure educational outcomes through independently
collected data as a complement to grades and test scores.

Ensure that universities and employers have a greater say in qualification content
and procedures (A–levels and GCSEs)

To maximise transparency the government should consider increasing the pupil premium, within the overall budget constraint on public spending, and making it the only
source of deprivation funding.'

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 20/10/2012 - 16:03

Brian - you have cut-and-pasted the overview for the OECD Economic Survey for 2011 but some parts are missing such as:

"the focus on test scores incentivises “teaching to tests” and strategic behaviour and could lead to negligence of non-cognitive skill formation."

But this was only the overview. The whole document, which isn't available freely on line, has a chapter about English Education which contains a critique of the excessive emphasis on raw grades and league tables. This critique describes the "perverse incentives" which occur when there are "high-stake" tests.

But these "perverse incentives" aren't the point of this post - to discuss them risks going off-thread. One point of this post is the making of crass comments by sources "close to Gove" which display unprofessionalism, ignorance and just a little panic. The other point is the risk of creating "serious, serious problems" in the exam system by Gove's rushed and ill-thought-out ideas.

James Blythe's picture
Sun, 21/10/2012 - 06:52

‘One thing is needed and that is good schoolmasters and mistresses.
Where they are absent, all the rest of the business of education in the
land is a waste of time, so much dust to blind the men and women who
do not want to see what they lack. Anyone, therefore, who really wants
schools that will give the people a good education must above all set their
hand to providing what is sorely needed, namely that all over the country
there are men and women who are willing and able to educate and guide
young people with insight and love so that they gain the wisdom they
need for life and the strength and order they need for their station and
their situation in life.’

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827)

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 21/10/2012 - 07:34

James - thanks for that inspirational quote. It's a pity that "good schoolmasters and mistresses" feel attacked, mistrusted and denigrated by past and present governments, the media and Ofsted.

The burden of solving all society's ills have been placed on schools hence the "no excuses" mantra. Any attempt to explain that a school's result depends on its intake is waived away as an excuse for incompetent teaching. In some cases this may be true but as the Education Endowment Fund found last year: many schools whose results are below the benchmark are nevertheless doing a good job. And the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) wrote in 2010 that UK state schools were outperforming private schools when social background was taken into account.

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