What's in a name: Are today's EBC changes really a full volte-face?

7th February 2013 at 13:27

There can be no hiding Michael Gove's humiliation today. Just 24 hours after setting out his case against the "educational establishment", the education secretary has been forced to bow to their demands and abandon his flagship policy to replace core GCSEs with English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs).

But look at what is being proposed instead and you begin to wonder whether the Conservative Party's former golden boy could have spared himself some of his current embarrassment.

Revamped GCSEs will see a reduction in coursework, with the qualifications assessed by linear exams taken at the end of two years. "Bite-sized" modules will go, there will be harder questions and the new qualifications will be measured against international benchmarks.

Does that sound strangely familiar? Well it should, because the points above were to be the key features of EBCs. In fact, leave aside the dropping of exam board franchising plans (which we will come to later) and the majority of the EBC scheme appears to remain intact.

One can only speculate about the internal coalition machinations that may have led Mr Gove to drop the EBC name - the decision that gave maximum prominence and negative publicity to the changes he has had to make. But it is only a name.

However, while his aides can console themselves with the thought that a large part of their original plans will survive, so will many of the problems associated with those plans.

These are not small matters. Introducing new qualifications can be fraught with difficulty at the best of times and many of the most challenging obstacles have yet to be addressed.
First, there is the timetable for change. Mr Gove wants the new GCSEs to be taught from September 2015, with the first exams sat two years later. But that is exactly the same timeframe as the introduction of new A levels. Teaching unions have already warned that the simultaneous introduction of two new major sets of school exams "could lead to a collapse of the system".

That was last month when EBCs were still alive. Today the name may have changed but that clash and "unmanageable level of change" will, as far as schools are concerned, remain.
Then there is the whole issue of tougher questions. When the plan to replace GCSEs was originally leaked last June, it was for "explicitly harder" O-level-style exams accompanied by simpler CSE-style exams to be sat by the "bottom 25 per cent of pupils". But the furious reaction at the prospect of a return to a two-tier system forced Mr Gove into his first U-turn last year. When the EBC proposals were formally announced in September they were for a single-tier exam to be sat by all pupils who currently sit GCSEs.

Lib Dems had been mollified - for the time being at least - but academic experts in assessment immediately warned that what was being proposed would not work. It would be practically "impossible" to create a reliable qualification that was tougher than GCSEs but could still in a single exam test the full range of ability catered for by GCSEs, they said.
Today that conundrum remains. Mr Gove has spent the intervening months attacking existing GCSEs for being a "disgraceful" two-tier system. So he remains committed to ending that "cap on aspiration" by introducing a single exam for all pupils. But he still wants harder questions.

So how can he do it? No more tiers, without forcing the exam boards that will have to devise the qualifications to protest that "enough is enough is enough"?

Mr Gove attempted to square that circle today in Parliament. "Reformed GCSEs will no longer set an artificial cap on how much pupils can achieve by forcing students to choose between higher and foundation tiers," he said. They "should allow students to access any grade while enabling high-quality assessment at all levels."

"The appropriate approach to assessment will vary between subjects and a range of solutions may come forward - for example, extension papers offering access to higher grades alongside a common core," he explained.

But many will struggle to see the difference between tiers and extension papers and common cores.

Mr Gove was much more straightforward when it came to announcing that he had abandoned another cherished aspect of the scheme: the plan to restrict the delivery of the new qualifications to a single franchised exam board in each subject.

He had seen this idea as essential to ending what he said was a "race to the bottom" among exam boards competing for extra business by making their achieving good grades easier. But today the education secretary was forced to admit that this was "a bridge too far".

It has been widely reported that the reasons behind this retreat - predicted by TES last month - were the prospect of exam boards that failed to win franchises suing, and the danger of the whole process being bogged down in complicated European procurement rules.

The logic of the decision is undeniable. What is much harder to understand is why it took so long to reach. Mr Gove first publicly speculated that he would like to see exams offered by a single board way back in December 2011, with the idea of franchising developed by June 2012.

But there has been no sudden change in European procurement rules since then. TES warned of these problems in July so why did none of the education secretary's advisers or officials spare him this embarrassment and tell him the idea was a non-starter months ago?

One reason could be the reportedly appalling relationship between ministers and civil servants. One source with inside knowledge of the workings of the Department for Education told TES: "All the recent coverage about the relationship between civil servants and politicians is true.

"The breakdown in trust between the two means the politicians are not being well backed up by the civil service. There is not a decent civil service team in place saying, `If you want to achieve this by then, this is what you need to do now.'

"Civil servants are just running round saying, `We will do our jobs and write a few papers and if it doesn't happen we can say the politicians weren't on top of the timeframe.'

"I have never known it like that, I really haven't."

If that is the case then it is problem Mr Gove will have to get to grips with quickly. Because as far as exam reform is concerned, many of his most difficult problems still lie ahead.


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