Stephen Twigg: Yet another of Gove's back-of-the-envelope policies is unravelling

4th October 2013 at 18:33

Stephen Twigg, Labour's shadow education secretary, writes: 

The Germans have a word for it – Schlimmbesserung. The act of trying to make things better which ends up making things worse.

Michael Gove has become something of an expert. Increasing the number of children childminders can look after, bringing back O-Levels and CSEs, introducing EBacc certificates – all had to be abandoned. 

Yet another one of his back-of-an-envelope plans is unravelling. It is typical of his approach to policy making – clumsy, on the hoof announcements, that turn out to have huge problems.

Thinking only he knows what’s best. If only he bothered listening to teachers instead of calling them the ‘blob’. 

In August, I warned Michael Gove about the growing problem of pupils being entered for GCSE exams in the same subject two or more times. This practice has increased significantly over the last three years. The idea that some pupils can sit the same maths exam as many as eight times is absurd. It is damaging for standards and damaging for pupils being kept on an exam treadmill.

It is also damaging for school budgets. Last year, the practice of multiple entry to exams cost schools as much as £11 million. But instead of addressing this problem with a thought-through plan, Michael Gove rushed to cobble something together in time for the Tory party conference.

He has decided that pupils resitting the same GCSE paper will only have the grade of their first attempt counted in school league tables. By rushing out this announcement after the school year has already started, it means pupils who are right now busy preparing for GCSE exams in November may withdraw from those exams and don’t take them until next Summer.

Many of the country’s top head teachers – like Liam Nolan in Perry Beeches – have told me this is wrong. 

The danger is that this will act as a cap on aspiration, particularly for bright pupils in inner city schools who may take an exam early and then go on to study a higher level paper. 

There is also a gaping hole in Michael Gove’s plans. If a school enters its pupils into exams in the same subject but run by different boards, the new policy of using the first grade won’t apply. This loophole illustrates how badly thought through his plans are.

Yes we need to deal with the damaging trend of multiple entry to exams. But not in a way that creates even more damaging effects.

I believe we need a more intelligent form of accountability for schools. For example, league table measures should ensure that teachers don’t focus the majority of their efforts on pupils who are on the border between and C and a D grade.

We need a system that ensures all pupils get equal attention and reduces the incentives for schools to enter pupils several times for exams in the same subject.

We absolutely have to tackle the huge rise in multiple entries that we have seen under Michael Gove. But rather than make policy up on the hoof, I will engage with parents, teachers and heads to ensure we get this right. 

The education secretary is becoming notorious for creating chaos in our education system. He has tried and failed to overhaul the GCSE system three times – all in pursuit of a system that seeks to recreate the past and cap the ambitions of pupils.

I was struck by what the headteachers’ leaders wrote this week: "Barely a term goes by without another sudden change to GCSE examinations. Worst of all, these changes are often made in the middle of students' courses of study, making it impossible to plan properly or to focus on learning rather than constant administrative change. These changes are often timed to coincide with party conferences or similar events, leading us to fear that students and schools are just collateral damage in party political squabbles." 

Pupils are collateral damage in Michael Gove’s political posturing. He needs to stop tinkering with the system and focus on standards. 


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today