Michael Gove is right about GCSEs – he just needs to move his logic to schools

Giles Marshall 1.30pm

You do wonder sometimes what the Conservative position on education really is.

Rab Butler introduced the seminal 1944 Education Act providing state education for all children aged under 15 within a tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary modern and technical schools.

Another Conservative education secretary, Margaret Thatcher, spent much of her tenure in the early 1970s energetically dissolving grammar schools in the interests of creating a universal comprehensive school system. When she became prime minister, her education secretaries, Keith Joseph and Kenneth Baker, were instrumental in the introduction of a comprehensive exam system at 16 to match the school system, replacing the academic O-levels with GCSE’s.

Now another Conservative education secretary wants to return us to the O-level system, and there is no want of any number of good Conservative supporters and MPs who would like to see the return of an academically selective school system too.

On exams, at any rate, Mr Gove is right, irrespective of ideology. To mangle Oliver Cromwell, GCSE’s have been here too long for any good they might have done and it is time for them to go. They are predicated on the flawed educational ideology of one size fits all, whether that be schools or exams. The GCSE assumed that all pupils, no matter what their academic ability, could usefully sit exactly the same exam. It’s a bit like taking a group of ski-ers of differing abilities onto a mountainside and insisting they should all ski the same slope. The reality, of course, will be that we choose the easiest slope, to avoid accidents that require probable hospital treatment. 

Exam accidents may not require hospital treatments, but they follow much the same principal as the safety minded ski instructor by setting out the easiest exams in order to give everyone a chance of being able to answer. 

It may be true that teaching is getting better. It is certainly true that the teachers’ knowledge of the exam system is stronger than ever. It is unlikely, however, that the overall ability of 16 year olds in the UK has been gradually improving without a hitch ever since GCSE’s were introduced. Which means that the unavoidable conclusion from all those increasing A and A* grades is that the exams are failing to provide a rigorous differentiation between able, moderately able, and not so able pupils. (And it goes without saying that we should be innately suspicious of any system which had to introduce an extra top grade because too many people were already attaining the existing one). 

I say this with no great pleasure. A teacher myself, I want my students to be able to achieve the best possible results. But I want them to do so in a system that doesn’t deceive them, and deception is at the heart of the GCSE system. The deception that an ever larger proportion of secondary school pupils are at the same high level of achievement when it comes to exams. No wonder Michael Gove smelt a rat. It benefits neither the able nor the academically disinclined to suggest that they can all fit through the same exam system. It is a deluded, “all must have prizes” attitude that fails utterly to take account of the need to prepare all of our students for a competitive, meritocratic world where ability is judged and does matter and is divisive. Where we are not in fact equal in what we can do and what we can achieve and what we can offer, and any attempt to suggest otherwise is socially meddlesome iniquity. 

Mr Gove’s plan to return the GCSE system to a more meaningful exam system which produces results that can once again be treated with some level of integrity is to be applauded. Returning to an O-level style system does not mean ditching the real advances in teaching approaches that have encouraged recent generations of pupils to take more critical and evaluative approaches to their learning, but it does give proper priority to rigorous and objective testing which can genuinely reflect the levels of pupil achievement. 

In acknowledging the failure of the GCSE, Mr Gove is accepting that not all schoolchildren have the same academic needs and abilities. He might next want to consider how that logic applies to the school system itself.

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