Many teachers are still wary about the need to raise exam standards - they mustn’t be

Nik Darlington 11.03am

Half of teachers in England oppose Michael Gove’s plan to replace GCSEs with a new English Baccalaureate (EBacc), according to polling by YouGov.

Nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) believe that grades should be based on a combination of final exams and coursework, as is currently the case with GCSEs but wouldn’t be under the proposed EBacc.

However, both teachers (77 per cent) and the public (82 per cent) agree with the Government in one respect: having one exam board per subject. I have criticised the current exam boards arrangement in the past, on these pages and elsewhere, as a corrupt and harmful presence in our education system. I have even claimed that the free market is failing the country’s children. So evidently I welcome this support for abolishing the practice of multiple competing exam boards.

There should be some concerns about YouGov’s sample size: at fewer than 700 hundred teachers in England, it is unimpressive. Factor in that this includes primary school teachers, with no direct involvement in GCSEs, and it looks threadbare.

We should also remember that while half (50 per cent) of teachers oppose the changes, that means the other half do not oppose the changes. True, only 22 per cent state they actively support them; but it is hard to form a definite opinion on something until you’ve seen what it is. The EBacc is still an idea, not an exam.

Much of the concern in the teaching profession seems, anecdotally at least, to be based on the likelihood of fewer children passing exams. The real issue here is one of raising standards, not necessarily pass rates. And if a new exam system raises standards to a comparable level with superior systems abroad, at the loss of higher pass rates, in the long-run it is a price worth paying.

I am told by one teacher with many overseas children in their classes that a mere glance at their textbooks demonstrates just how far behind our GCSEs are compared to the exams they would sit in their home country: “their GCSEs are equivalent to our AS levels”.

Significant parts of the teaching profession might be in denial or opposition of Mr Gove’s suggested reforms. And often with good intentions, I don’t doubt. But if we are to do the best for Britain’s children, we cannot continue to cheat them the opportunity of as rigorous an education as their peers overseas. In a globalised economy, this becomes ever more crucial every year.

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By reforming Britain’s already “two-tier” exam system, Michael Gove continues to put interests of pupils first

Nik Darlington 11.08am

Michael Gove has form in sending hearts aflutter among the education establishment, for better or for worse.

To some, he is a godsend. A radical reformer with one guiding principle - put the rigorous education of children ahead of all else. To others, he is a hate figure.

His insistence that it should be easier to sack badly performing teachers, for example, went down - among teachers at least - like a fart in an elevator.

But few expected what came to light last week. An internal departmental paper, detailing the Education Secretary’s plan to abolish GCSE exams for ‘core subjects’ in the next few years, found its way into the hands of the Daily Mail. The final exams would be sat in 2015 and GCSE results would no longer appear in league tables from the following year. Predictably enough, Labour, the Lib Dems and the teaching unions cried foul.

On Friday, Giles explained why Mr Gove is correct to want to replace the current format of GCSEs, which “are predicated on the flawed educational ideology of one size fits all, whether that be schools or exams”. A teacher himself, Giles says that “deception is at the heart of the GCSE system”, with thousands of pupils being dragooned down the wrong educational path. Importantly, Giles points out that a return to a traditional O-levels format does not mean abandoning the advances made in teaching approaches in recent years.

Other teacher seem to agree, one telling me that it cannot be right to “cram” children up to a 20 per cent C-grade in order to pass GCSE Mathematics. A “more appropriate course” is needed. They also say an entire review of the GCSE set-up is needed, as Britain is “becoming a bit of a laughing stock” globally.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, effectively vetoed his Cabinet colleague’s plans, claiming they would create a “two-tier” exam system, which was either sloppy or wilfully deceitful.

This country already has a two-tier exam system of GCSEs, taken by the many, and IGCSEs, taken by the few - i.e. leading independent schools and, since this Government lifted a ban on their doing so, several of the better and more ambitious state schools. It has, according to the same source, left an “underclass” with a poor exam and poor preparation for A-levels.

There is, of course, a downside. What to do with those pupils perceived at age 14 unable to cope with a more difficult course? As admirable and right as it is to want to offer premium education to as many pupils as possible, there will still be thousands deemed unable to make the cut. And, even more controversially, the minority straddling the borderline between ‘Gove-levels’ and lower ranks.

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We must do more to help the young

Alexander Pannett 7.30am

In Roman times, Janus, the two-faced god, emphasised change and the development of youth into adulthood.

It must therefore be galling to British school children that modern education in the UK has changed little with its own two-faced approach.

On the one hand, they must forever be taking more exams, more coursework and more responsibilities in order to compete in a globalised world for the jobs and life that their parents assumed was a birthright.

On the other, pupils’ achievements are mocked as poor return in an age of grade inflation, ever-falling exam standards and supposedly parlous work-ethic.

Those that survive the pressure cauldron of school and manage to secure a coveted place at University find, with bitter irony, that their education is transformed into a shadow of its former intensity, in many cases consisting of a mere two to four hours “contact time” a week, in classes of twenty or thirty.  A friend of mine did not even have a single assessment to complete in her first three months of University.

“Student-led” seminars are prevalent, where often a distracted tutor sits in the corner, nursing a particular esoteric brand of instant coffee and wondering whether the etymology of ennui can be traced back to Shakespeare’s cat. Or some such nonsense.

And now you have to pay for such “higher education”.

Even on managing to graduate without bankruptcy or gout, students are required to perform intricate initiation “tests” by graduate recruitment personnel, who, despite twenty odd years of supposedly world class education, will judge students’ suitability for employment on their ability to build towers out of rolled up newspapers.

Or they may get lucky and be sent off to fight in one of the wars that have been fostered on them by middle aged arm chair generals and suffer rejection by an apathetic society for their efforts.

Throw in astonishingly high house prices for first time buyers, un-paid internships and unprecedented youth unemployment (22%) and you start to suspect that today’s youth are getting a particularly raw deal.

It is in this context that, whilst Michael Goves’s plans to request A-Level exam boards work with leading universities to raise standards should be applauded, we should be expecting a lot more action from the Government in addressing the social inequality timebomb that will arise from current youth degradation.

The Government should be much more radical about raising standards in schools by abandoning the discredited A-Level system and switching to the world-leading International Baccalaureate.  University degrees should have a mandatory minimum number of hours of contact time and ambitious students should be allowed to fit more modules into a term and so finish a degree at a quicker pace, to cut down on the regressive debt they will have to accrue.

The Government must also provide better vocational courses for students who do not choose an academic route, with enough resources and training to make these a viable alternative path into the workplace.

To achieve effective reform there must be much more dialogue between businesses, universities and schools about what skills the job market needs.  Businesses should therefore also be consulted on the content of exams for both secondary and higher education.

There should also be much more encouragement for companies to take on work experience students and pay them.  Tax incentives could be made available for companies that employ 16-24 year olds.  The lowest income tax band should be raised for 16-24 year olds to help them meet the costs of finding initial employment.

Benefits must be re-structured to recognise and relieve the youth unemployment epidemic. Jobseekers allowance should be highest for the most vulnerable, which are 16-24 year olds due to their lack of skills and experience. Currently this age bracket gets less than any other.

The Government could also issue a moratorium for every government department on making 16-24 year olds redundant due to spending cuts.  Building on Chris White’s recent Social Value Bill, the Government could ensure that the granting of government contracts is weighted in favour of companies that promote youth apprenticeships.  The Big Society Capital could also be encouraged to invest in social enterprises that directly help youth employment.

As our society grows older, we will be looking to the generosity of younger generations to sustain the prohibitively expensive welfare state that we all will rely on for our remaining years.

Unless we show compassion to the suffering youth of today, we should not be surprised if that compassion is not returned when we find ourselves dependent on them in the future.