As Michael Gove celebrated his 50th birthday last week, two days after this year’s GCSE results were issued and there was extensive coverage of his exam reforms, he probably reflected on a job he considered well-done and how much has happened to him since he left Sanctuary Buildings three years ago.
And indeed it has: chief whip for a year, secretary of state for justice for a year, a successful (for him) Brexit campaign, a disastrous (by his own admission) party leadership campaign, out of office for a year, and now secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs.
This ministerial musical chairs says a lot about how the UK political system operates. The Department of Education has suffered more than most from frequent changes of leadership. Since 1944, the average length of the secretary of state’s term of office has been 2.2 years.
Meanwhile, those working in secondary schools are left with the unenviable task of implementing the biggest programme of exams reforms since the start of the GCSE in 1988. There have been far too many examples of ministers initiating change and then moving on to other departments, while the profession is still introducing his or her new policies.
More planning needed
Implementation is for the long haul, but policy formation is too often for short-term headlines. In the most successful education systems, such as Singapore, South Korea and Finland, changes are considered and planned over a much longer timescale and ministers stay in post to see reforms through the extended implementation period.
Nearer to home, Scotland has introduced its "Curriculum for Excellence" over a long period and the Scottish government has made every effort to ensure that the teaching profession is on board with the reformed curriculum and its associated examinations.
Michael Gove’s exam reforms changed almost every aspect of qualifications for 16-and 18-year-olds: the content of the specifications, the style of examinations, the grading system and, in the case of AS and A level, the inter-relationship between different qualifications.
To be fair to Ofqual, it has managed to put the Gove changes into a workable system pretty well on an unacceptably short timescale. It was an unenviable task, not least because many of the changes were either unnecessary or just plain wrong. Two examples must suffice here – the changes to GCSE grading and the AS level exam reforms.
If there are problems with the qualifications system for 16-year-olds, they flow from the absence of a coherent unified structure of academic and vocational qualifications, and not because of shortcomings at the top end of the range of grades.
Time and effort spent on changing grades from A*- G to 9–1 and subdividing the top grade into three would have been better-spent on improving technical and vocational qualifications, making them more accessible for 14-to 16-year-olds alongside a good general education.
The grading changes are an unnecessary distraction, offering a bit more information to the most highly selective universities on which to make their conditional offers, causing several years of confusion for parents and employers and creating a lot more stress for academically bright students.
The split of AS from A levels is the most damaging of the changes, with 16-year-olds now having to make a two-year decision about what academic courses to study, instead of embarking on, generally, four AS courses and then deciding a year later which three courses to pursue to A level.
This "horizontal" AS had replaced the "vertical" AS introduced by Keith Joseph, which had proved to be a failure, since two vertical ASs were equivalent to one A level, but required more work on the part of the student.
As a halfway house to A level, the horizontal version of the AS helped many students to broaden their studies post-16 and gave them a more informed choice of what to study at full A level and university.
Pausing exam reforms
However wrong these changes are and however painful I find it to say, I believe that it would be wrong to go back on the exam reforms now.
Teachers and students need a period of stability and the only way this can be achieved is by making a success of the new system. It is time to hit the pause button on exam reforms. We have to look forward, not go back.
But the next time we have a secretary of state for education who seeks to make his or her reputation by vandalising every aspect of the system they can lay their hands on, let us rise up as a profession with an alternative vision that puts the best interests of the students at its heart and gives the teachers change at a manageable pace in the areas that really need changing.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford
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