Examinations: Gove takes exams reform gamble

21st August 2009 at 01:00
But do the shadow schools secretary's proposals leave vocational qualifications devalued?

Original paper headline: Gove reveals his hand as Tories take a gamble on exams reform

The tories have faced criticism over the past year on what is claimed to be a lack of clarity in a number of key policy areas. But as the political poker game begins to take shape in the run-up to the general election, they are finally beginning to show their hand.

Just days before A-level results day, shadow schools secretary Michael Gove outlined his plans to reverse the supposed "dumbing down" of GCSE and A-level assessments. This is a crucial battleground for the party that has pledged that "driving up standards" will be a main focus of its education policy.

Among the proposals are a points system to A-levels that distinguishes between "hard" and "soft" subjects. Physics, maths or modern languages will receive higher scores than so-called "soft" options such as media studies and law.

The recommendations stem from an inquiry into exams reform being carried out by the former rector of Imperial College, Sir Richard Sykes, due to be published later this year.

As well as distinguishing between A-levels, Sir Richard calls for league tables to be overhauled, with the current benchmark of five good GCSEs, including English and maths, abandoned in favour of another points system.

The benchmark has been widely criticised for encouraging schools to focus on pupils on the CD grade boundary, neglecting those at the top and bottom of the academic spectrum.

Echoing last year's report by the Policy Exchange think-tank, Mr Gove said top universities do not accept some combinations of A-levels as they feel "some are better than others".

But perhaps the most controversial of his proposals is removing vocational qualifications, including the Government's diploma courses, from school league tables. Diplomas have come under sustained fire from the Tories, who have claimed they are "nowhere near as academically demanding" as traditional A-levels and GCSEs.

Results for vocational courses would continue to be published, but in a separate league table.

Speaking to The TES, Mr Gove said: "Parents look to league tables as a measurement of academic performance of schools. We believe all children, unless there are the most biting extenuating circumstances, should get a rounded academic education by the age of 16.

"We don't want to make excuses for failure and that is why league tables should measure academic performance. We know there are schools that have led pupils to easier subjects (in order) to inflate their position in the league tables."

Mr Gove added that he is a "strong believer" in vocational qualifications, but that students will only choose them if they can be sure they will bring educational benefits, and that there is no use in "smuggling" those that offer no benefits into league tables.

"Schools that have a good record with vocational courses will be able to trumpet their own achievements by stressing their successes," he said.

DCSF's viewpoint

However, a spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families dismissed Mr Gove's arguments. "We don't recognise the labels `soft' or `hard' A-levels," she said. "All subjects are rigorously measured against each other to maintain standards, overseen by Ofqual."

But Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools describes the Tories' plans as a "significant step in the right direction".

"The intellectual challenge has been lowered over the years," he said. "This doesn't mean vocational courses will be undermined - you don't have to bridge the gap between vocational and academic exams to ensure that vocational courses are valued. Vocational courses have their own currency and do not need to be placed alongside academic studies."

Professor Woodhead also supports reform of league tables, claiming they are the best method of providing parents with information on how a school is performing.

"The teaching profession must learn to live with accountability," he said. "While it is true that a school in a middle-class catchment area with middle-class pupils is likely to do very well, I do not buy into this idea that there is a determinism that insists that a school in a deprived area cannot achieve well in a league table. There are some fantastic examples of schools in deprived areas that are performing well in league tables."

The Conservatives say their reforms are not only important for raising standards, but also for improving England's status on the international stage.

Figures from the Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) show that in the world rankings England has plummeted from fourth place in science to 14th; from seventh in literacy to 17th; and from eighth for maths to 24th.

However, the figures are problematic as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) places English pupils among the best in the world for maths and science.

Liberal Democrats against the Conservative stance

The Liberal Democrats say the Tories' plans would result in pupils taking qualifications to which they are not suited.

David Laws, the Lib Dem education spokesman, said: "The current league tables are clearly flawed, but the Tories' proposal to exclude vocational qualifications risks replacing one inadequate system with another.

"To simply exclude vocational subjects is completely unacceptable as it could create perverse incentives. Pupils could be persuaded to take academic subjects when it may be in their best interests to choose a vocational course.

"We need a fully independent regulator to make sure all approved qualifications have proper status and are comparable.

"Coupled with this should come reformed league tables which encourage teachers to stretch all their pupils and not focus on those at the key borderlines."

Conor Ryan, one-time education adviser to Tony Blair and former education secretary David Blunkett, issued a similar warning, saying students could become disaffected by what is on offer.

"A lot of schools have been widening their range of qualifications, particularly for those pupils that are less suited to academic studies," Mr Ryan said.

"There have been understandable issues around the worth of vocational qualifications in comparison to others, but to give no credit to schools with pupils taking vocational courses in league tables will just discourage the schools from offering them.

"If there is no credit, then schools will have less incentive to offer them and those youngsters will not find the range of qualifications they need. It could result in them becoming disillusioned and disaffected and could lead to them missing out on their chance of employment."

The Association of School and College Leaders said the move would "perpetuate the English disease of making vocational courses second best", and that even with a points score league tables were an unfair way of comparing schools.

And teaching union the NASUWT dismissed the proposals. General secretary Chris Keates said: "It has taken the last 10 years to rebuild an education infrastructure to give parity of esteem to academic and vocational courses.

In the Tories' rush to condemn the current system, no thought has apparently been given to the adverse impact of the announcement on the morale, self-esteem and employment prospects of the 12,000 young people who have already embarked on diplomas."

But she said it was the timing - days before A-level results day - that was the most "disturbing" aspect of the Tories' announcement.

It is strong criticism, but at least now the Tories can no longer be castigated for not revealing their policy.

Mr Gove has talked about returning credibility to the exams system for some time, but without actually saying what he meant. By next May, we will know whether the political gamble has paid off.

Comment: `We must not diminish the status of vocational learning'

Michael Gove's calls for reform are well founded. However removing vocational, qualifications and diplomas from league-table rankings will not result in a better-educated society.

By diminishing the status of vocational learning in this way, he is dismissing the hard work and genuine achievements of hundreds of thousands of young people, as well as calling into question the value of qualifications taken by adult learners up and down the country.

Mr Gove's vision for a more effective education system can and should only be realised by nurturing all talents, academic and vocational.

Encouraging less able students to take "harder" A-levels can only be part of the answer. The next generation is rich in many talents, and it needs access to many, equally high-quality paths to success. If that means making the vocational qualifications more rigorous, so be it.

We should be improving standards of vocational education by ensuring that qualifications are taught by staff with experience of the industry they are teaching, and with specialist facilities.

For example, students studying catering need the advice and expertise which only a teacher who has spent time working in the sector will be able to bring to lessons.

A rigid national curriculum controlled from the centre and linked to simplistic target-setting has led to children aged 14 to 16 being channelled down a single path. This means that some struggle at subjects that do not match their interests or abilities.

The solution is to offer many paths to success, with each one being equally demanding and matched to the talents of an individual student. In other words, the answer to securing a high-quality academic education is to allow students the option of a high-quality vocational education.

In both academic and vocational qualifications, there will be different balances of theory and practice. In academic subjects, the centre of gravity is more theoretical, and in vocational learning it is more practical. But wherever they occur, these two elements must be of the highest standard.

  • Peter Mitchell, Education director of the vocational charity Edge.

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