Tories target exams in their reform plans

28th November 2008 at 00:00
The shadow schools secretary wants England's 'devalued' exams to be comparable with the world's best and less political influence over schools. Is that realistic? Warwick Mansell reports

Top-down political intervention, backed by an unthinking education establishment and a debased exams regime, is failing our schools.

And Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, is the man to change this. This was the gist of a speech he made last week.

But will his words find an appreciative audience among teachers and the wider electorate? And will the changes help to raise standards?

Questions and potential contradictions loom after Mr Gove continued the sketching out of Tory policies and the intellectual basis for a fresh round of schools reform under a David Cameron government during his speech to the Haberdasher's Foundation in London.

First in his sights was the exams regime. Mr Gove highlighted the fact that while data on national tests, GCSEs and A-levels have been improving, alternative measures of success, such as international testing systems, show no such progress.

In fact, it was hard to find any alternative measure, other than domestic test and exam results themselves, which showed that standards were rising. To sceptics, this is proof of Goodhart's Law: as soon as a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

In other words, Labour's accountability regime has focused schools' attention on certain results outcomes to a degree that, even though they have improved, it is hard to find evidence of this outside of the measures themselves.

Mr Gove used a host of examples to argue that the Government had presided over an era in which the qualifications currency has been "devalued". In one sense, this is a logical inevitability: as more pupils gain good marks, clutches of A grades will lose their value unless more jobs and university places are created that require students with those good grades.

He then set out specific studies from Durham University that even the head of one of England's biggest exam bodies has acknowledged are disturbing. These chart the way students of a certain ability at the start of their A-level courses end up with higher grades now than they did in 1998.

Mr Gove also highlighted questions from GCSE science papers, which he said were actually simple reading comprehension exercises.

By contrast, he praised the international baccalaureate (IB) as having avoided grade inflation. "This is because the IB is managed beyond the reach of politicians. It cannot be devalued by ministers anxious to manipulate the figures to flatter their record," he said.

Anyone who analyses the structures and incentives operating in England's exams-led accountability system will find it fertile territory, and many teachers may be sympathetic to some of these arguments.

Critics argue that with exam boards operating competitively, and schools and politicians desperate for pupil results to improve, the tendency is for a "race to the bottom", with these pressures forcing the boards to take actions that might improve results, but at the cost of depressing standards.

Mr Gove proposed several measures to address this problem.

First, a Tory government would force Ofqual, the new exams regulator, to ensure the boards do not lower standards. This would be achieved by requiring Ofqual to "guarantee that our exams and our pass marks (are) comparable with the world's best".

This proposal was prompted by last month's revelation in The TES that Ofqual asked one board, the AQA, to lower the C grade boundary for GCSE science to bring it into line with the standards of rival boards, although the AQA argued that to do so would make the exam easier than it had previously been.

Yet there is no detail on how the Tories would benchmark England's exams against others around the world. Regulators have a tough technical job even comparing standards between courses within England, let alone trying to make comparisons across countries and cultures.

And any suggestion of intervention in the setting of standards, as is implied by Mr Gove's move to enforce "rigour" on Ofqual, presents another problem.

Ofqual was set up to be independent of politicians. By intervening in this way, Mr Gove would boost ministerial influence over it.

Perhaps a more radical solution might be to decouple the exams regime from political accountability. Another way could be found to hold ministers to account for the performance of the education system - such as testing a sample of pupils on a range of skills every year - meaning that politicians would no longer have any interest in exam results rising every year.

Mr Gove makes another interesting point when he observes that the huge pressure on schools to raise results come what may can have serious side effects for pupils.

For example, he criticises the Government's National Challenge scheme, which says all schools must have at least 30 per cent of pupils gaining five good GCSE grades including in English and maths.

This, he says, pushes schools towards "soft subjects" that have more chance of improving their results. But this will not help their pupils in the long run, he argues, since universities in particular do not value these subjects. Thus, Labour is unwittingly helping to perpetuate class inequality.

Mr Gove suggests the accountability structure should be changed so schools become less answerable to politicians, and more to parents. The Tories would open up the state sector to more private organisations willing to set up state schools, as has happened in Sweden. They would give parents more opportunities to withdraw their children from unpopular schools to attend more successful ones. And disadvantaged pupils would get extra funding.

Although the extra money for the poor has been well received, it must be questionable whether the other aspects of Tory policy would close the achievement gap between pupils from poorer and more affluent homes, as Mr Gove envisages.

Any move to bring in greater parental choice carries with it the risk that middle-class families will be better equipped to take advantage of this freedom so that achievement gaps could widen. Recent evidence that schools at the bottom of league tables have been the ones that have struggled hardest to recruit well-qualified maths and science teachers supports the idea that a system based on league tables and choice can polarise performance.

Mr Gove also continued the party's recent attack on the education establishment - a "small, self-replicating group of academics and bureaucrats who have been in thrall to a particular ideology" for 40 years.

This has seen traditional subject instruction threatened by more "progressive" cross-curricular teaching; primary pupils sitting in groups rather than in rows; a move away from synthetic phonics; and the replacement of an emphasis of teachers imparting knowledge in favour of abstract skills.

In all these areas, England's education system has suffered, Mr Gove argues. How influential the ideas he attacks really are in the system is debatable, but the recent move by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to put more emphasis on cross-curricular skills has been popular in many schools.

Perhaps this illustrates the greatest contradiction in Mr Gove's speech. He implies that political influence over what goes on in classrooms can be harmful. And yet his party has a very clear view on the right way to teach.

Teachers - who told a recent TES poll that they wanted politicians to step back from the classroom - should not hold their breath.


Compel schools to set all academic subjects by ability

Open up state school funding to private, charitable and educational operators that want to open their own non fee-paying schools - following the Swedish model

Pupil premium: extra funding attached to disadvantaged pupils, making them more attractive to schools

Give state schools the right to offer any examination they want

Ofsted to assess every teacher without warning in new "lightning style" inspections

Full anonymity to be given to any teacher facing allegations until the case is settled

There is something particularly reactionary about an education which does not give our citizens a proper knowledge of our Island Story and the Great Tradition of our literature.

The (state school) head, no matter how enlightened, knows that future success doesn't depend on pleasing anxious parents but on hitting ministerial targets

The purpose of our education policy is emancipation - the liberation of the next generation from the shackles of a policy, and an establishment, that has failed

Our examinations, like the pounds in our pockets, are no longer worth what they were. What looks like great performance in our state-run exams turns out to be below par when compared internationally.

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