When it comes to exams, we are worlds apart

21st September 2012 at 01:00

Never mind the Olympics, Andy Murray and prurient photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge, it's been a great start to the session for education stories in the news.

Some of the best are emanating from England, where Michael Gove, journalist-turned-education secretary, knows how to create headlines. From day one in the post, the limelight was on him as he rushed to cancel hundreds of new school buildings and claimed erroneously that over 1,000 schools had applied to become academies (it was 153). This time it's his proposals for GCSEs.

Only last week, rows were blazing over our sister magazine TES `s revelation that the national qualifications agency Ofqual had instructed GCSE exam boards to downgrade their summer results. Now the minister is proposing new exams to replace GCSEs and be decided on a single three-hour paper - bit like the old days really (news page 10, letters page 32).

You wonder sometimes how far English and Scottish policies can diverge: as they head for exam-only "EBCs", we sail towards exam-free National 4s. Every year the gulf between the two education systems seems to widen. Free schools, maintained schools, academies, studio schools - it's hard to keep up with the variety in England. It's another world to Scottish readers, where 96 per cent of pupils attend the local primary or comprehensive.

We think we have radical policies up here with Curriculum for Excellence and the National qualifications coming on board, and some teachers are struggling with the pace of change. But at least our policies, which have been years in the making, don't feel as if they are being made on the hoof. And they certainly don't have the "retro" quality of Mr Gove's.

The diversity of UK education is on the increase, as the devolved powers each seek to make their mark. This week's News Focus is on Northern Ireland, where education minister John O'Dowd has been making headlines with his aggressive stance against selection in an attempt to tackle enduring sectarian and social divisions (pages 12-15).

He is taking the running of schools away from the five Library and Education Boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and handing it to a single Education and Skills Authority. Four years after the 11-plus was officially abolished, its selective grammar schools are still setting entrance tests and, in the Sinn Fein minister's words, "corrupting the curriculum". He is looking to Scotland, with its ease of transition from nursery to primary to secondary, and attempts to improve the chances of all through CfE.

But we have benefits the other nations don't have. Scotland has had a long-term perspective, as education secretary Michael Russell put it at this week's Scottish Learning Festival, and it has enjoyed relatively cross-party consensus (page 6).

Gillian Macdonald, gillian.macdonald@tess.co.uk, Editor of the year (business and professional).

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