Richard Willis's Blog

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Three Cheers for Michael Gove!

Education Secretary 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.

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June 21, 2012 - Posted by | National

5 Comments »

  1. I was sent to the best independent girls’ school in town. Due to having only one lab, my school taught only O level biology. The sixth form did have an O level Physics course, which I took and passed in one year before transfer to the local girls grammar school. I didn’t know any Chemistry then and I don’t now. Combined Science does have some merit as a subject/double subject.

    I cannot agree that any particular exam system has anything to do with allowing young people to remain functionally illiterate and innumerate, these are essential life skills and should be every child’s birthrate regardless of whether there is an exam at then end or not. Although part ot the point of CSE and the lower grades of GCSE was to recognise attainment by young people who were not being taught to or entered into GCE O levels.

    Comment by Christine | June 22, 2012 | Reply

  2. It might have been an idea to let Cameron know about his plan first or perhaps he’s just after his job. This is just another ludicrous knee jerk initiative which will be consigned to the dustbin with a minimum of fuss before the summer is out.

    Comment by Phil the Greek | June 22, 2012 | Reply

    • Im sure he would have done had it not been leaked to the Mail! There is nothing ludicrous about raising school standards and giving kids a proper education for life!

      Comment by Richard Willis | June 22, 2012 | Reply

  3. I agree with most of what you are saying , the exception being that I think there ought to be just one examination body. If there is a choice then schools will always try to plump for the easier exam. With the league tables of more recent years schools need to, and will, do all they can to improve their position through using easier exams . Remember the recent case involving a school in this town!

    The other thing that needs changing is the grading system. There is no point in everyone getting an ‘A’. It would make much more sense to go back to the old way of the top 15% getting the A grade , the next 15% getting a B and so on. Surely the point of an exam is to find out who is the best! At least by doing that the difficulty (or not) of the exam would not allow ever increasing pass rates.

    Education standards in this country have without doubt fallen over the last decades and this has let down generations of young people by allowing them to go through the education system without achieving the basic numeracy and literacy and it about time that someone did something about it.

    Comment by Howard Thomas | June 22, 2012 | Reply

  4. Two questions:

    1) Who Leaked and why? If it wasn’t Gove himself what is he doing to identify the culprit.
    2) Whose kids?

    Comment by Phil the Greek | June 24, 2012 | Reply


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