EBacc to the Future: Gove's seeds start to show shoots

23rd August 2013 at 01:46



What a difference a week makes. Last week saw the percentage of leaping, hugging blonde girls in mainstream print media flatline at 100% for the tenth year running; seven days later that had withered to a fearful, modest 0% as candidates were less comfortably beyond the age at which it is acceptable for picture editors to leer. GCSEs stories are accompanied by sober pictures of pupils sitting at desks; on TV the equivalent is the early bird shift as the cameras rock up to a school with a head keeping one eye on the potential for publicity.

So, plenary: what have we learned?

Early GCSE entries have rocketed

And we should be ashamed by that. What on earth is the reason for entering a child a year, two years early for an exam? Sure, there are exceptional kids who need the challenge, but let us make exceptions for the exceptional. Whole cohort entry does two things: it means that schools can re-enter kids for the same exam a year later if they don't pass first time, and it depresses the grades they might have obtained eventually.


The former sounds like a benefit to the pupil, but it’s really a benefit to the school, which can bank vital Cs, or put the D and belows back into the tombola and turn the handle again. The latter is a crime against children. Why enter a pupil at year 10 and get a B, when they could get an A a year later? Universities don't give a damn if you have eight GCSEs or eighty. They want to see top grades. Doing something just to scoop up an extra GCSE is a shambolic approach to a child’s education. It’s league table ballast. It’s inspector-repellent. It has nothing to do with a child’s best interests.

Top grades have fallen

This is connected to (1). Ofqual revealed that only two thirds of this year’s GCSE entry were 16 year olds, leading to a drop in the number of top grades.


Multiple entry for same or similar exams has blossomed

15% of maths entrants last summer had sat one or more units from another GCSE maths paper already. The scandal of this year’s cohort was the number of pupils who were sitting two papers that were almost identical; English Lit GCSE and IGCSE, for example.  DfE research recently revealed that last year 400 students were entered for the GCSE maths exam seven times. The poor sods.


How on earth do schools sell this to pupils? I imagine ‘two bites at the cherry’ was a phrase used a lot. I bet ‘Gaming the school results for league table effect’ wasn't heard quite so much. The DfE has come out against this practice, saying that it is ‘not good for students and should not happen.’ It betrays a belief in examinations as a game to be played rather than a system to use. It might be in the letter of the law, but it defeats the spirit. Actually, Ofqual has shaken its sabres against this, and has dropped hints that it won’t stand for it in future. Watch this space.

Science results down

As expected, and far less of a surprise than last year’s English Civil War, where for the first time in over two decades, grade inflation was lassoed like an angry bull. A lot of people were very upset about that, despite the fact that they had been warned about it months in advance, and everyone got very upset and went to the High Court with their petitions and the High Court went ‘you were warned about this blud, allow it’ and it all sort of went away.


The science GCSE had been rejigged to make it more challenging, and lo, it was so. I feel for students who have lost out this year and last, when previous years would have seen the same effort rewarded with higher grades, but inflation had to get new brake pads at some point. Otherwise, 122% of students would be getting a C or above in English by 2022 and I’m not sure we want that. Plus, inflation means that previous cohorts are treated unfairly compared to more recent ones, so the injustice is simply spread backwards.


Languages are UP comrades

The E of the EBacc finally kicks in, as schools change shape to accommodate the new accountability measures. Languages used to be the Giles Brandreth of the curriculum; now, they’re Rihanna, riding a giant Manga robot, reading a lost poem by Robert Frost.


Interestingly, Spanish is the winner here, over French and German, indicating that either schools have long memories for ancient grudges, or Spanish is perceived to be phonetically easier. I don’t know. I suspect that Ibiza Uncovered plays a part in this.


Geography and history are both up, the lucky beasts. Curiously, so too is RS, which is remarkable after the fears some had that it would wither, yea, like a vine. Either way, I’m happy for Cinderella subjects that get to go to the ball. But at the expense of what?


If I were Michael Gove, I’d be watching this all on my enormous steampunk viewscreen and cackling into my steepled fingers. All proceeds as planned, he would chuckle. The levers have started to take effect, and every protest, campaign and act of dissent has still led to this point.
What will be really interesting is to watch the national and regional scores on the doors next year. Why? Because the great BTEC scandal runs out of gas this year. From next year, the extraordinary over-equivalence of BTECs compared to GCSEs is over. No more can schools meat mince their kids through BTECs just to pick the low hanging fruit of multiple GCSE point scores. Which will mean that most BTECs will vanish from many school curriculums.
I’m frequently disheartened by this kind of blatant game playing. And it ignores the obvious truth; that education should be for the pupil’s benefit, not the school’s. And any school that makes a decision for its pupils that isn’t based solely on their good, doesn’t deserve to have any. There’s a place for game-playing in the curriculum: PE. And nowhere else.