Beyond the smokescreen

9th November 2012 at 00:00

"Critical to reform is ending an examination system that has narrowed the curriculum, forced idealistic professionals to teach to the test and encouraged heads to offer children the softest possible options," said education secretary Michael Gove when he announced his plans for English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) to replace GCSEs.

Gove has an obsessive conviction that the Left has been systematically lowering standards, dumbing down exams and wrecking youngsters' education. This bizarre "reds under the bed" attitude is best ignored. He gives three reasons why GCSEs aren't working. There are, in fact, lots of reasons why they aren't working and they do need to be scrapped. But those three are none of them. He's created a smokescreen that needs to be challenged.

He says that GCSEs have narrowed the curriculum. They haven't. In fact, there is a wide range of subjects and pupils can benefit from a broad curriculum. The narrowing comes when someone like Gove interferes. A couple of years ago, for example, he decided that some GCSEs were more important than others. His new system perpetuates that hierarchy.

I have no objection to the concept of a core curriculum: the damage is done only when government insists on league tables that are based on them. At that point, the core becomes the only part that's valued.

Any alleged narrowing has nothing to do with what schools do, what children choose or what teachers teach. It is all to do with the pressure on schools to meet targets. They are pushed to get a certain number of C grades in a certain number of exams. The government dishes out no brownie points for getting pupils A*s. What keeps Ofsted off your back is a minimum number of C grades in a prescribed range of subjects.

That pressure is what creates the three problems outlined by Gove. It narrows the curriculum because schools, under the Ofsted cosh, concentrate on them. Consequently, teachers are obliged to take a tick-box approach to teaching.

We are moving towards the tick-box-style exams that will get candidates over the tick-box hurdle of government benchmarks. For any minister of the past 20 years to present himself as liberating teachers and allowing them to be creative is a fairly grotesque kind of posturing.

Gove castigates those who push children towards easier exams. But if you're a leader and your job, your teachers' jobs and much else depends on hitting those targets, wouldn't you be tempted in some cases? I might. I never judge heads in those positions, because I'm lucky enough not to live with that pressure.

Ministers should know better. They do. But Gove wilfully opened his statement with a political red herring. His three reasons are indeed national problems, but they are not problems with GCSEs, merely with the way government uses and abuses them.

I wish I could feel optimistic about the GCSE replacement, and about the reform of A levels that will follow. But the new structure is proposed on the basis of solving a bogus and politically contrived set of problems.

Without root-and-branch reform, our exam structure faces collapse. But the proposed EBC system is a house built on sand: as the scripture says, "mighty was the fall thereof".

Dr Bernard Trafford is headmaster of Newcastle's Royal Grammar School. The views expressed here are personal.

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