I looked up the meaning of the word “rigour” on Wednesday night. I did so, of course, because it was the evening before A-level results day and that word – rigour – has been deployed as one of the justifications for the juggernaut of exam reforms through which we are living. It is used as though it is self-evidently a good thing, a quality which improves the education of our young people and raises educational standards. It is also underpinned by a political narrative; that here is a government determined to jettison "soft" options and do battle with "dumbing down".
“Rigour”, I found, is defined as “the quality of being extremely thorough and careful”. I think we can all agree that being thorough and careful is a useful quality, but probably not in itself the key to raising educational standards and not what the government had in mind. It also means “severity or strictness” as in “the full rigour of the law” and it means “harsh and demanding conditions”. The sheer weight of reforms has certainly created harsh and demanding conditions for students and teachers, but this is obviously not the meaning of the word that the government had in mind either.
So, what has the point of the reforms been exactly? I’m not sure that this question has ever really been explicitly and comprehensively defined. Was the point to raise educational standards? And how would we be able to show that goal has been achieved in an exam system governed by "comparable outcomes" in which roughly the same percentage of students achieve the respective grades each year? Was it to prepare our young people for the demands of the world of the future? If so, how does this fit with the emphasis on a narrow range of traditional academic subjects?
As fans of the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy know, understanding the question is more important than the answer. In that comedy classic, the answer to life, the universe and everything was “42” but nobody had thought to define the question.
Narrowing of the curriculum
The reason for these reflections is the unintended consequences which are flowing from the reforms. This week’s A-level results provide further compelling evidence that the curriculum is narrowing. The take-up of modern foreign languages has continued to decline and so have entries to creative arts subjects such as drama and music, as well as design and technology. This trend is largely reflected at GCSE, too, where French and German have undergone a long-term decline (although Spanish has remained stable), and creative arts subjects are also beleaguered.
The issue here is not necessarily the qualifications themselves but the system of school performance measures that accompanies them and that prioritises the EBacc suite of subjects at GCSE. That and the nonsensical decision to sever AS levels from A levels, thus reducing sixth-form options. All the evidence shows that, despite the government’s avowals to the contrary, the emphasis on a traditional set of academic subjects is marginalising the creative arts and design and technology. It is not just the performance measures that are to blame, but also the serious systemic issue of real-terms cuts to school and college funding, which are driving cuts to the curriculum.
And the issue is more complex still when it comes to modern foreign languages because these are, of course, EBacc subjects. The problems here are created by a mixture of factors – teacher shortages, the perceived difficulty of these qualifications, and funding constraints that make teaching small groups financially unsustainable. What this demonstrates is that accountability measures are not the solution to the erosion of languages and what is really needed is sufficient funding, teachers and a national strategy.
Which leads us back to defining that all-important question about what we want the education system to achieve for our young people? Because “rigour” does not constitute a strategy. It’s a soundbite at best, and a pretty woolly one at that. If we want to preserve the creative arts and modern foreign languages – and most of us would agree about their cultural, educational and economic importance – we must surely pause in the relentless rush to reform and consider carefully our next steps. Before it is too late.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders