Thursday, 21 June 2012

On Gove, O Levels and education

Hardly a week goes by without some new policy either being leaked from or revealed by the DfE. The education secretary, Michael Gove, seems to live for the irresistible glare of the media spotlight. And his latest brainwave - to get rid of 'dumbed-down GCSEs' and bring back 'rigorous O Levels' (in the entirely objective and balanced words of the Daily Mail) - has certainly garnered a lot of attention.

At the moment, we do not have enough detail, due to the plans being leaked before the DfE was ready to unveil them formally. But let's look at what we do know. The National Curriculum is to be scrapped and instead of a range of exam boards issuing different papers, there will be one gold standard national paper drawn up by a single board and sat by every student. There will be 'harder' exams in English, maths and the three sciences as separate disciplines, as well as history, geography and modern languages. But it is this which is the biggest bone of contention - 'Less intelligent pupils will sit simpler exams, similar to the old CSEs...Questions on these papers will emphasise real life situations like counting change in a shop or reading a railway timetable'. The strikingly elitist and condescending tone is unmistakably Tory, and indeed unions have already warned of a return to 'a two-tier system'. They are right to worry. I'm worrying too.

Underlying the entirety of the Tory-led government's policy on education are a number of erroneous, damaging and politically motivated principles. We cannot yet say if the new O Levels will be just like the old ones, but we can say that Gove is quite the nostalgia freak. He envisages a return to the classroom of the 1950s - think Latin grammar and reciting Tennyson by heart; a solid and traditional 'British' education. Like all rosy and romanticised visions of the Glorious Days of Yesteryear, it is not to be trusted. To see this, look no further than the fact that students will now, just like the good old days, be banned from taking set texts into English exams. This is is an absurd proposal, based on the equally absurd idea that a person's appreciation of literature can be measured through their ability to remember quotes. I can love
King Lear & have a whole lot of interesting, original things to say about it. But if I can't memorise Edgar's speech in Act II, sc iii, I'm fucked. It angers me, because reverting to the old methods of forcing kids to learn passages by rote will make them hate the piece they're studying - and that is a tragedy.

If Gove does indeed want to bring back old style O Levels, he ought to realise that it is a myth that they are so much harder and more challenging that modern day GCSEs. As Adrian Elliot notes in the TES, 'Only the very brightest pupils sat O- or A-levels then - a fraction of the numbers who now sit public exams - and yet they failed in droves'. Moreover, a Cambridge Assessment study of English scripts from 2004 compared with ones from 1993 and '94, as well as O Level scripts from 1980, found that there had been 'an overall improvement in standards. Spelling was better... and in all other respects - content, writing, vocabulary and punctuation - the scripts of 2004 were better than those of 1993 and 1994'. I sat my GCSEs only a year ago, and trust me, they are no walk in the park. They require real knowledge, real skills and hard work. And they are by no means perfect, but I am always deeply offended and infuriated when every results day - without fail - the achievements of so many young people who have worked their socks off, are poopooed in the national media. It seems we enjoy nothing more than lambasting kids - for being rude and boisterous, or withdrawn and antisocial; for being lazy and undedicated, or doing well in their silly and facile exams.

In addition to nostalgia, the holy doctrine of competition also makes up the bedrock of coalition policy on education. Already we have a system dogmatically fixated with league tables, assessments and constant, grinding examination. The belief is that the principle of the markets - that rivalry drives up standards - can be applied just as neatly to schools. New Labour, unsurprisingly, went along with this idea, and the Tories wish to accelerate it aggressively. Free schools, academies, even the possibility of profit-driven schools  - all contemptible assaults on the education system - demonstrate this, and so too does this latest policy. At the age of just 15, kids will be divided into the clever and the thick. Sure, they'll dress it up to make it sound nicer, but that is in effect what will happen if Gove gets his way. As ever, the Tories wilfully ignore the connection between social class and academic achievement. I've heard stories of teachers who can see a bunch of kids on their first day in Year 7, and predict with startling accuracy what grades each of them will get 5 years later. As well as this, the emphasis will be unflinchingly placed - even more so than it already is - on examination success in the 'real' subjects: maths, English, the sciences, languages. Again this is a regression to old methods, and it fundamentally misunderstands the true purpose of education.

In a lecture given to TED in February 2006, Sir Ken Robinson, a highly-esteemed international educationalist, said, 'There isn't an education system on the planet that teaches dance everyday to children the way we teach mathematics. Why? Why not? I think maths is very important, but so is dance...Academic ability has come to dominate our view of intelligence...And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at wasn't valued at school, or was actually stigmatised'. His words have immediate relevance. The government's elitist and nostalgic view of education is rooted in this intellectual snobbery, which has time only for the A students, while the rest are blamed for their inferiority and given an exam that their weak little minds will hopefully be able to grasp. The system already suffocates creativity, and tells kids that they're only worth something if they excel at calculus or can say something smart about a fancy poem. Screw vocational courses and forget the likes of drama or art or food technology. These are 'Mickey Mouse' subjects, for the lowlier non-academics. It is a crying shame, it is unacceptable and the new O Levels will only serve to cement these notions into crushing rigidity.

It would seem only sensible that politicians who want to improve their country's education system should take a look at the methods of those who are doing a better job. The PISA survey is conducted every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and in every survey since 2000, Finland has 'ranked at or near the top'. In Finland, private schools do not exist. Educational establishments are not allowed to charge tuition fees. They have no standardised examinations, but rather a student's ability is assessed by their own teachers, through independent, self-made tests. Moreover, there is zero attention paid to competition and academic supremacy. The focus is on equality and cooperation. Far from a system that splits kids in two based on exam results, the Finnish system is founded on the principle that each child 'should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location'. Maybe there is a reason Finland is ignored by the Tories.

Gove's latest education policy stays true to form, following on from the same ideas which make up all previous proposals. The fact that it was leaked, and was being drawn up behind the back of the Liberal Democrats and without reference to the select committee, shows, once more, a government in incompetent, shambolic disarray. But more than that, they have no democratic mandate with which to impose these reforms. The Tories gained just 36.1% at the last election, and such radical and sweeping educational changes were in neither party's manifesto or the coalition agreement. Worse still, Gove's plans will not even require Acts of Parliament and are designed in such a way as to be practically irreversible once established. As with the NHS, the government has launched a stealthy, concerted and ideological attack on education - dressed up in the words of 'modernisation' and 'improvement'. In the public consultation coming up in Autumn, we must all make as much noise as possible. Unions, schools, teachers and students will fight this tooth and nail, because what is it at stake could not be more important - the education and future of our children and the nature of our society. The case must be made for a fair and equitable educational system, a system that fosters rather than stifles creativity, a system that favours cooperation over competition, a system that snubs intellectual elitism and is committed not to to the excellence of a few but to the fulfilment and well-being of each and every child. We must make that case now, we must make it loudly, and we must win.