Three Cheers for Michael Gove!
There is nothing ordinary about the leaked plan to restore ‘O’ Levels. Education Secretary Michael Gove has struck a chord with many around the country and in the Conservative Party with his reported plans to replace the debased GCSE examination system inEnglandwith a more rigorous academic exam by 2014. For years, since the GCE and CSE were merged into a single GCSE exam, critics have noted the year on year increase in the pass rate and the consequent need to differentiate the real high fliers with a new A* grade. The ability to take and retake individual modules (unlike the old ‘O’ Level) has also made it easier to pass. So many pupils now gain an A grade and so few fail that many have derided the GCSE as mediocre and almost worthless.
Gove’s plan reportedly includes a return to individual science subjects of Physics, Biology and Chemistry rather than the current fashion for a “Combined Science” GCSE. He also proposes that the top stream of mathematics students should study calculus. Less academic students would study for a more practical or vocational qualification with a focus on basic numeracy and literacy. In many advanced nations this would be seen as common sense and in most cases existing good practice but here the howls of protest from the left have already started.
In my view it is unarguable that the GCSE (which was introduced by a Conservative government) has been debased over time. Private schools have already begun moving to alternatives and few overseas nations have adopted the British GCSE, in contrast to the ‘O’ Level which is still used elsewhere around the world despite it falling out of favour at home.
My father was the chairman of the South Western Examination Board and oversaw the introduction of that body’s Physics and Science GCSE papers in the 1980s. There was great pressure to make the new GCSE exam a success and I well remember my father being very frustrated at the immediate “dumbing down” of the exam questions compared to the ‘O’ Level paper. That only became worse over time. It was well known at the time that the jump from the standard expected at GCSE to the standard of A Level in the Sciences and Maths grew significantly. It was less so for Arts subjects. The knock on effect throughout the education system was noticeable and employers can too often be heard bemoaning the shortage of British engineers, scientists and mathematicians.
Michael Gove also proposes to scrap the secondary school national curriculum and operate with a single national examination body. The national curriculum has often been attacked for being too prescriptive and Gove plans to allow Head Teachers to determine their own priorities for their school in discussion with teachers, governors and parents. This makes sense in the majority of cases but has its own risks. Some will remember the reasons for the national curriculum’s introduction (again by a Conservative government) when thousands of pupils were being failed by “loony left-wing” local education authorities and trendy lefty teachers who put political posturing ahead of good education. There has to be a tough inspection regime to prevent this happening again.
I have reservations about a single examination body. I can understand the thinking, in that it prevents schools picking the easiest exam paper to boost their position in league tables and it ensures a common standard acrossEngland. However, it reduces competition and choice, which are fundamental Conservative principles, and puts control into the hands of a single body. It would certainly require a tougher regulatory regime to ensure that the highest standards are maintained and that the recent scandals of leaked papers and selective briefings for some teachers do not happen.
Whatever the new exams are called they have the potential to become a new “gold standard” in education. It is also important that the exam for the less academically able is well supported and respected by employers. IfBritainis to be successful we need to provide the best education for the next generation and we cannot afford to have so many youngsters leaving school functionally illiterate and innumerate. Overall I am delighted by Michael Gove’s boldness and that he clearly has the interests of future generations of youngsters and the British economy at heart. The leaking of these proposals before they could get through the normal internal government processes is regrettable but the whining of Trades Unions, some Lib Dems and others on the left must not be allowed to derail this sensible and long overdue reform.