Gove's exams could shed light on our two traditions

28th September 2012 at 01:00
England's reform of GCSEs poses interesting questions about the rightful role of child-centred education

Something historically very odd has been happening these past 20 years in curriculum, examination and educational philosophy. Scotland and England have swapped places. Michael Gove's most recent announcement of reforms to GCSEs in England is the latest sign of this remarkable shift. The continuing development of Curriculum for Excellence takes Scotland in a quite different direction.

On the specifics of Mr Gove's proposals, the contrast with the emerging assessment in Scotland is large enough. The new English Baccalaureate Certificates will not be modular, will not test coursework, and will be assessed almost entirely by an end-of-course examination, presumably of quite a traditional sort.

The new Scottish assessment that will serve broadly the analogous group of students - leading to the Nationals 3, 4 and 5 - will, like the Intermediates, continue to be modular, will continue to involve unit assessments, and will continue thus not to rely predominantly on terminal exams. Indeed, in the case of Nationals 3 and 4, there will be no external assessment of the examined kind at all.

On the one hand, therefore, the courses in England will lose the pedagogical capacity that continuous assessment offers - the scope for tests to be an aid to learning. Unit assessments are a reality test, when students can understand their progress and their need to work. Scotland will retain this, and in principle the potential to use assessment to promote learning. Whether Scotland will actually be able to do so remains opaque until the details of the assessment are revealed by the SQA. It has to be said that what so far has been published does not suggest there will be much innovatory excitement in that vein.

On the other hand, these contrasts will have some severe implications for Scottish students, especially for school-leavers of moderate ability. Their certificates will mostly not have depended directly on any external assessment. In England, such students will have sat the same external examination as their more academically able peers. Whatever we may think of this difference pedagogically, it will undoubtedly disadvantage Scottish students in the cross-border labour market.

It is difficult to see, either, how the universities would ever recognise wholly internally assessed certificates, in stark contrast to their likely judgement on the new common standard of assessment in England. The consequence in Scottish schools will be irresistible pressure to have everyone entered for National 5s.

So how did we get here? GCSEs were modelled on Standard grades, which the Nationals replace. Standard grades were the last successful attempt to found the expansion of Scottish secondary education on a traditional conception of liberal education, with emphasis on breadth of knowledge in the service of citizenship. They were the most sustained attempt, in fact, to bring into schools the essence of what has more famously been called in Scotland "the democratic intellect".

Though rejecting GCSEs, Mr Gove adheres warmly to that Scottish tradition, as he has proclaimed on several previous occasions. The Nationals - and CfE - are outside it, in their emphasis on skills, in their assertion of experience over intellect, and in their neglect of a core of common knowledge that might be thought to be at the heart of any kind of common citizenship.

The contrast goes further. Curriculum for Excellence is in the mainstream of child-centred education, a modernisation of a developing Scottish radicalism that goes back through the 1965 Primary Memorandum to the New Education Fellowship of the interwar years. At no previous point in Scottish policy have child-centred ideas been as central as they are now.

In the past in Scotland, they have always been tempered by the tradition of intellect and breadth, a sense that the inherited respect for knowledge would modify the most radical student-centredness into something that would be rigorous as well as respectful of students. Maybe the perennial caution of Scottish teachers will ensure the same moderation prevails again, but - unlike these previous occasions - there is scant encouragement for it in the Curriculum for Excellence rhetoric.

The irony here is that child-centred ideas were at one point at their most radical in England, and yet have now been pushed firmly to the margin. They are now less respected even than under Margaret Thatcher, when they resurfaced in the student-centredness that vocational education tends to favour (because it has to concentrate on individual students' economic needs). In places, Mr Gove's new manifesto reads like a modernised version of a rather traditional Scottish policy document, circa 1947.

Where Scottish educational philosophy used to be pre-eminently about common knowledge and common absolute standards, these values are now widely regarded here in public debate as rigid, of little help in practice, and conservative. Mr Gove's Conservative proposals, flawed though they may be in many of their details, are thus an interesting experiment of a paradoxical sort.

Because of their ultimate origin partly in the dominant Scottish tradition, his ideas, alongside Curriculum for Excellence here, offer us a policy experiment of an intriguing kind - two versions of Scottish educational history. Before Scotland rushes to judgement on what he is proposing, let us consider carefully over the next decade, on the basis of evidence, which of these two Scottish traditions works best, in encouraging student motivation, in raising attainment and in reducing inequality of opportunity.

Lindsay Paterson is a professor of education at the University of Edinburgh.

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