The Commons EBacc debate – a mixed serving with piquant side dishes

Janet Downs's picture
This week’s debate on exam reform went something like this:

The first course: a substantial soup served by Stephen Twigg. It contained familiar ingredients: concerns about a narrowed curriculum, the rushed timetable and a lack of consensus seasoned with strong body of opposition.

The second course: rather thin gruel from David Laws. It contained a promise that the reformed exams for 16 year-olds would match the world’s best systems. This was thrown into the mix several times. Unfortunately, the proposed recipe is not followed by the rest of the world which favours graduation at 18. Laws served his dish with a full-bodied PISA (2006 and 2009) but ignored sparkly TIMSS (2007)*. He attempted to beef up his offering by grumbling about university and colleges needing to provide remedial classes. This shows too much influence by recipes in the Daily Mail.

The side dishes: these provided piquancy although a couple were rather dubious. Chris Skidmore served the old chestnut of there being a qualification in a single skill (this time cake decorating) which matched a maths GCSE. I’ve been unable to track down this ingredient – it might be included in a larger mix: BTec Level 1 in Basic Cooking Skills, perhaps. The wheeze of taking a small component from a larger mix and then condemning the tiny portion as substandard was exposed by FullFact some time ago.

Later Skidmore tossed discredited data on to the table. He attempted to liven up the meal with a garnish of plummeting league tables, blithely unaware of the Statistics Watchdog’s warning that the Government’s use of these figures was unsafe.

Ex-schools minister, Nick Gibb, regurgitated a familiar element, rapidly going stale, about the importance of academy conversion. He was concerned that the standard of previous meals had gone down due to grade inflation. He picked up black cherries to garnish his inflationary dish but ignored the red cherries that contradicted it**. Gibb mishandled CBI ingredients, getting the proportions wrong. He justified his support for the new exam recipe by citing “a study” which proves how important testing was for acquiring and retaining knowledge. The fact that knowledge can disappear like collapsing air from a soufflé once it’s been examined doesn’t seem to have occurred to the ex-minister.

Pat Glass, a member of the Education Select Committee, reminded diners of the dog’s dinner produced by changing too many ingredients at once when the revised GCSE English was introduced. She wanted a more careful and considered creation.

Graham Stuart, Chair of the Education Select Committee, warned the Secretary of State not to impose himself in Ofqual’s kitchen. He wanted curriculum ingredients decided before decisions were made about how to cook them.

Bill Esterson, also an Education Select Committee member, added strong flavours from the CBI – these warned about teaching-to-the test and an excessive emphasis on raw test results. Evoking the Great British Bake Off, he wanted the ingredients to influence the cake, not the cake deciding what went into it.

Shadow education minister, Kevin Brennan, introduced exotic ingredients from Singapore. He listed the aims of the Singapore education system but feared the Secretary of State would find them “wishy-washy”. He launched an impassioned attack on the proposed exam recipe:

‘This is a case of wrong reform, wrong timetable, wrong way round: wrong, wrong, wrong. The new three Rs are all spelt with a W, standing not for “reading, writing and arithmetic” but for “wrong, wrong, and”—as the Secretary of State might say—“thrice wrong”.’

The meal is not yet over. There’s dessert to come: a choice of two dishes whipped up by Kevin Brennan and Michael Gove.

*See faq above Is the UK tumbling down the international league tables?

**See faq above Has there been grade inflation in GCSEs and A levels?


The Singapore curriculum described by Kevin Brennan aims to produce: “a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively; a self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning; an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence.”

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