In an article for The Times, schools minister Nick Gibb makes a vigorous defence of his government’s GCSE reforms, at the heart of which sits the prioritisation of a handful of subjects – notably maths and the sciences, and others making up the English Baccalaureate. The restoration of rigour forms the thrust of his argument – and yet rigour is a quality applied only selectively by Mr Gibb himself. Had his article acknowledged objections to this narrowing of the national curriculum, the schools minister may not have been left quite so flat-footed by the announcement by the Russell Group universities that it is to scrap its controversial facilitating subjects A levels list, in order to give creative and less traditional subjects greater prominence.
We should recognise GCSEs as a national treasure, argues the schools minister. Thirty-five years ago, he tells us, the Conservative government announced that they were to replace O levels and CSEs with GCSEs. These, we learn, were intended to bring clarity and consistency to examinations: students would be rigorously tested on their mastery of a subject, while teachers and employers would know exactly what the resulting grade meant.
He follows this with a potted history of reforms, and while he acknowledges that the system is not perfect and has suffered issues such as grade inflation, it is curious that he makes no mention of claims from serious commentators that GCSEs are no longer fit for purpose. The CBI has argued that they are irrelevant and should be scrapped, as has Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon.
I wonder what definition of rigour Mr Gibb identifies with. A common sense rendering can mean thorough and detailed, but it can also mean severe, rigid and austere. Applied scientifically, the idea means different things according to intellectual context. However, I suspect few academics would dispute that it requires the disciplined application of reason and method, and demands that we entertain all possible explanations in finding answers. By either definition, rigour surely demands that competing arguments at least be considered, even if they are then dismissed.
Mr Gibb goes on to defend the prioritisation of certain subjects at GCSE – notably maths and the sciences – on the grounds that these are what the public value. Nobody would seriously argue that these subjects are anything but important although, again, there are some curious omissions in Mr Gibb’s analysis. Lord Baker, very much an architect of the modern education system, has been vocal on what he sees as the squeezing out of creative and technical subjects in our schools, arguing that alongside the usual curricular suspects, young people should study a technical subject such as design and technology or a BTEC, and a creative option such as a GCSE in art, design, music, dance or drama.
His is not a lone voice: the educationalist Bill Lucas wrote in Tes that a focus on Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at school is not sufficient for would-be engineers. Rather, he says, the world-class civil engineering department at UCL has shown that undergraduates do not need maths or science at A level in order to excel. Lucas suggests that other subjects matter too, art and design in particular, in helping to facilitate the necessary habits of mind.
Arts education organisations have pointed out the devastating effects that the narrowing of the curriculum has had on the uptake of creative subjects at A level, and are now calling into question the value of the English Baccalaureate given the Russell Group’s change of tack. Mr Gibb’s ignoring such dissenting voices both offends the requirements of rigour and leaves him stranded on the wrong side of the argument.
The schools minister redeems himself partially by making implicit reference to concerns raised about the educational culture of which GCSEs are a part, and to which exams are key. These, he says, "are always tough but they are part of the reality of school life and help build resilience”. However, a more thorough analysis might have raised and dealt with former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell’s warning that an addiction to exams for young people ramps up the risk of a mental health epidemic, or the 2015 Demos publication – Mind Over Matter – which found that pupils in the UK lose confidence and are less happy as they move through school, with a third of final-year students believing their school is focused only on preparing them to succeed in exams, rather than in life.
If I were marking Mr Gibb’s piece as an exam submission, I think I might have serious issues with his application of rigour – unless, of course, he favours that definition that implies only austerity, severity and inflexibility.
GCSEs are dull, narrow and stifle creative teaching, which is why Bedales abandoned all non-core GCSEs for our own more interesting and challenging Bedales Assessed Courses with their wider range of assessment methods and group work. And because everyone now has to stay in full-time education, or follow an apprenticeship or training, until the age of 18, there is little point to an exam that was introduced at a time when pupils could leave school aged 16 qualified, and get a job. The clamour for change grows by the day, and even if he does not agree with it, rigour surely requires Mr Gibb to at least acknowledge it.
Magnus Bashaarat is the head of Bedales School