From The Editor - Is the EBC Mr Gove's poll tax moment?

18th January 2013 at 00:00

At regular intervals the country adds to its long list of embarrassments, that catalogue of nonsense and lunacy that induces a collective cringe. The poll tax, It's a Royal Knockout, George Galloway's cat impression and last week's interview with the actress who played E.T.'s hands 30 years ago spring to mind. Now it seems the proposed replacements for GCSEs have united vast expanses of opinion in similar horror.

Ofqual, headteachers, unions, independent schools, captains of industry, artists, athletes, academics, Labour MPs, former Tory ministers, future Tory ministers and Stella McCartney have lined up to denounce the new English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) being cobbled together by Michael Gove's team (pages 28-32). The Archbishop of Canterbury, Piers Morgan and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have yet to pronounce but it can be only a matter of time.

Faced with such daunting opposition, lesser politicians would have buckled. But Mr Gove seems disinclined to back down. After all, his single-mindedness has refashioned education more thoroughly and more rapidly than any other secretary of state in recent history has managed. Many have hated those changes. But none can deny the impressive determination that made them happen. He didn't get where he is today by listening to too many opinions. And in his opinion - an opinion shared by many others, incidentally - GCSEs are simply not good enough.

Could the EBC, however, be one initiative too far? Could it be his poll tax or, at the very least, as career-limiting as John Redwood's Welsh mime, William Hague's baseball cap or Neil Kinnock's wet bum? Because what is striking isn't so much the breadth of opposition ranged against him as the weight of argument his opponents wield.

For a start, many academics think that designing a tougher, single exam that still seeks to assess all abilities is impossible. Ofqual is worried that restricting a subject to one board will deplete expertise and destabilise the industry. Others believe that limiting assessment to linear exams will demotivate some pupils as surely as it fails to assess the potential of others.

The fear that creativity has been sacrificed in the pursuit of rigour isn't restricted to designers and assorted luvvies. Business leaders, too, are unimpressed with the EBC and its faint 1950s whiff. And almost everyone thinks that introducing it with indecent haste and a minimum of cross-party support is monumentally foolish. All in all, the EBC is shaping up to be as convincing as Lance Armstrong on Oprah.

As things stand, there is every inducement for an incoming administration to scrap it in 2015, the year it is supposed to start. For that matter, what will prevent schools from deserting en masse to respected alternatives such as the IGCSE?

So the question must be asked: why bother? Why invest so much time and energy in an exam that is universally unloved and looks anachronistic now that every pupil will leave school at 18? Wouldn't it be better to go back to the drawing board or to stick with reformed GCSEs than to continue to promote a less satisfactory alternative? Or is the art of compromise so neglected that everyone in the department has forgotten how to use it?

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