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'Making GCSEs harder shows that Govism, if not Gove himself, still reigns'

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John White, emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, writes:

Changes to GCSE marking, announced earlier this month, mean that fewer students are likely to get the highest grades. This reinforces a view I’ve had for some time, that we need to think harder about what school exams are for.

We take them for granted as pillars of a democratic society. They are embodiments of fairness, providing equal opportunities for all young people to compete for the better things in life.

We know the sleepless nights they give students, the anxieties they cause parents and teachers. We know how they stunt the secondary school curriculum. We have endless reminders of how unreliable their grading practices can be.

Yet we still see them as indispensable. "Secondary education for all" was once a distant vision of the Left. For nearly three decades we have had a common examination – the GCSE – that appears to instantiate it. Most young people take this test. It excludes no one from the road to higher education and a good job. Its blemishes are nothing in comparison to the benefits it can bring. The whoops and tears of results day are as much a part of what binds us together as a community as the men’s finals at Wimbledon or the New Year sales.

This is how we see things. But there is another perspective. Between the 1900s and the 1960s the idea of the school examination as a democratic institution would have seemed laughable to its main beneficiaries. These were the comfortable middle classes who sent their children to public schools and state grammar schools. It was their mid-Victorian ancestors who had pressed for examinations at every level as a means of breaking the landed classes’ monopoly of entry to Oxbridge and the higher professions. Patronage had given way to objective assessment of academic merit. Soon even the élite public schools were forced to clamber aboard.

Around the 1890s, what were then called "the labouring classes" began to use examinations to help their own children to get on. But not for long. The last thing their social betters needed was competition from below and the danger of slipping in the social scale. In 1904 the government made elementary schools – which over four-fifths of the population attended – an examination-free zone. The same happened in the 1940s, with the creation of the exam-less secondary modern school.

The 20 years before Sir Keith Joseph created the GCSE in the mid-1980s saw the rise of the comprehensive school and with it another surge from below to join the examined classes. We can read the taken-for-grantedness of school exams today as the culmination of this democratic trend. But there is, as I have suggested, a quite different perspective.

The democratic hypothesis overlooks human nature. It forgets the quite understandable desire of more affluent families to try to secure a place in the sun for their own children. In the early 2000s as much as the early 1900s, the last thing they need is downward social mobility.

Look at it this way. Since the 1980s, Right-inclined governments – including Blair’s – replaced the Left-dominated ones of the previous period. The years between 1986 and 1992 brought us the GCSE, the National Curriculum, and league tables. That is to say: a common exam built around discrete academic subjects; a common curriculum to mesh in with this; and a mechanism for clued-up parents to locate schools (including private schools) with the best results.

Gove cemented the new structure. He toughened examinations, to the advantage of their traditional clientele; micro-managed the curriculum in an exam-friendly direction; and blurred the boundaries between state and private schools so that they together constitute a national, exam-orientated system. Well-off families know how best to negotiate this new world, paying for extra tuition where necessary.

In addition, Gove made the preservation of the new structure not far short of a civic duty. International league tables became as significant as domestic ones. He made us think that improving our position in the global race for a better-educated workforce is a national mission. We are all in Pisa (Performance in International Student Assessment) together.

Is the line I have been pressing biased? Can we really conclude that examination policy since 1980, not least since 2010, has followed the old path of shoring up the prospects of the better-off  – but under the new guise of progress towards a more democratic and united country?

What about the passion that Gove, like Cameron and Osborne, has shown for making our society more mobile? What about his insistence that poor-performing schools do better, so that they, like his favourite Mossbourne Academy, populate Oxbridge with their alumni?

For over a century more affluent groups have favoured an exam-based ladder for the poor, as long as those able to climb it have not been too numerous – thus threatening their own, better-off, children with social demotion. As the educational civil servant Sir Michael Sadler wrote in 1936, "Conservatism with plenty of safety valves suits the public taste. And in our educational system the chief safety valves are the scholarships".

For "scholarships" now read a string of As and A*s and Oxbridge for the brightest, and a pecking order of lesser institutions for the also-rans. The system may be more nuanced than in Sadler’s day, but in our more democratic times it effectively masks a same underlying purpose: to protect the social position of those at the top. Its success in this is clear as day in the recent Milburn Report on Elitist Britain.

Enlarging opportunities to reach the heights by making school exams a common requirement need not endanger the status quo – as long as it is carefully managed. Gove’s "reforms", building on those of Joseph and Baker before him, are not the democratic advances they are portrayed to be. The recent announcement that GCSEs are to be made harder shows that Govism, if not Gove himself, still reigns.

John White's new book Who needs examinations? A story of climbing ladders and dodging snakes was published last week by the Institute of Education Press.

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