"Sorry, We Cocked Up" - The Press Release that Gove Should Issue

Henry Stewart's picture
This is the press release that I would like to see from Michael Gove:

"A month ago the Department for Education (DfE)  published a new measure for schools, of the % of students achieving AAB grades in 3 'facilitating' subjects [list at bottom of post]. This led to most of the UK media reporting that a quarter of English schools failed to get a single student the necessary A levels to get to a Russell Group university. Err, this wasn't true. We cocked up. We are not aware of a single university, in the Russell Group or elsewhere, that requires 3 facilitating A levels for most of its courses. The Russell Group advises students to take 2 facilitating subjects, and suggested we use that as a measure, but we ignored them. Sorry about that.

"I am very sorry that we once again denigrated our schools, this time on the basis of a measure that made no  sense at all. I am also sorry to all the secondary schools and sixth form colleges that had to decide whether to respond to our new measure and encourage more students to take 3 'facilitating' subjects. We hope you ignored us.

"And I am especially sorry to the hundreds of thousands of 16 year-olds who have been making their A level choices, and could have been misled into taking subjects which were not the best choice for them. I hope there is still time to change back. It is because of the huge, and largely undesirable, impact that this measure could have that I am openly admitting our mistake rather than slipping it out quietly and hoping nobody notices. Sorry, we will try and do better next time. Michael"

The Nonsense of 3 Facilitating Subjects

Soon after the measure, which has become known as the Abacc, was published it became clear that it was nonsense. Three days after the tables came out I wrote "Shock! Horror! Schools do badly at measure that nobody cares about". The Head of Tiffin School wrote to the Director of the Russell Group, pointing out that only 44% of their students got AAB in facilitating subjects, but 89% got into Russell Group universities. The Independent pointed out that David Cameron got into Oxford University with just one facilitating A level. In this week's Guardian Laura McInerney argued that the idea may put students off doing what they are good at. An extra lunacy arose when it became clear that a student could only get into subjects like Music, even at Oxbridge, by doing an A level in that subject - which wasn't on the facilitated list and so would exclude them from this statistic.

The nonsensical nature of the measure wasn't hard to spot. A quick glance at the Russell Group web site and its Informed Choices document reveals that its advice is for 2 facilitating subjects and adds  “Generally speaking students who take one ‘soft’ subject as part of a wider portfolio of subjects do not experience any problems applying to a Russell Group university.” (p29 of Informed Choices).

(It should be noted that there is some dispute even about 2 facilitating subjects. This was the point that the Tiffin Head originally challenged the Russell Group on, pointing out that several of their past students had got into Oxbridge on just one facilitating subject.)

It is important for students to understand what A levels are needed to apply for the degree of their choice. Those wanting to do Engineering will generally need good grades in Maths and Physics. For medicine at least two sciences are generally required. But the use of this absolute measure (especially when the wrong figure was used) is deeply misleading.

Not Admitted, but Quietly Slipped Out

Michael Gove has not, of course, issued the above press release. At first it wasn't clear if the use of 3 facilitating subjects was a mistake, or a deliberate attempt by our Secretary of State to push students to take his preferred core academic subjects and drop subjects like Music, Art, Politics and Philosophy. However this Twitter exchange yesterday with @toryeducation (felt to be close to Gove) suggests it was done in error:

@toryeducation: "We said yesterday - DfE boobed publishing 3, fixed last week by publishing 2.."
@localschools_uk: I asked: "Why did DfE ignore Russell Gp advice and go for 3?"
@toryeducation: "It didn't, it cocked up, though it fits worldviews better to assume a dastardly plot"
@localschools_uk: "Still like to see DfE statement admitting cock-up. or did they just quietly slip out the adjusted tables?"
@toryeducation: "Quietly slipped, obviously"

(Note: These tweets were part of a longer conversation)

Confusion Reigns

So check your local school and you will see one measure for AAB with 2 facilitating subjects and one for AAB with 3 facilitating subjects, with no explanation of which one matters. The table of school-by-school KS5 data now contains both figures (though it isn't clear when the figure for 2 facilitating A levels was added) but the overall KS5 summaries still seem to be based on achieving AAB in the meaningless measure of 3 facilitating subjects. And, because the change has been slipped out quietly, most schools and students will be completely unaware of the change and still working out whether they should be getting more students to take 3.

My son is in Year 11 and has just chosen his A levels. His school has a strong sixth form and bases its advice on the Russell Group guidance and not on this latest DfE measure. They are not therefore advising students to take 3 facilitating subjects. However he reports that, even there, many students in his year - influenced by what they and their parents see in the media - are now seeking to take 3 facilitating subjects, even though these are often not the subjects they are best at or will enjoy most. And that can only mean less students taking the more creative subjects that are already under attack at GCSE level.

Michael Gove has once again misled the nation. And, not having the guts to admit it, he continues to mislead our students into taking A level choices that may not be the best ones for their futures.


Note: The facilitating subjects are Maths, Further Maths, English Literature, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History and Languages
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