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.


jeanwp said...

Great piece Sam, good luck for the future.

42 said...

Good analysis. A* :-) (unlike the Daily Mail that would struggle to pass on anything where objectivity is required)

Lynne said...

Great article. Loved reading it.

Steve Hemingway said...

If the questions on CSE's are to be so demeaningly easy all the candidates will get 100% and it will be obvious that the curriculum was a mistake.

GCSE's are alread a two-(or more)-tier system: ask any employer who has to chose between candidates who got 'A's or 'D's.

The fact that you couldn't take set-books into a literature exam in the past does not prove that the old system was worse.

You don't provide any actual evidence that 'O' levels were not, in reality, harder than GCSE's. The fact that lots of people failed them is surely evidence to the contrary.

Private schools, although they are charities, do compete for pupils. The best of them get 40%-50% of their pupils into Oxford, Cambridge or an Ivy League school. Is this evidence that competition does not lead to a high-quality education?

I'm sorry, it is more important to teach kids about calculus than about food technology.

There is intense competition for jobs as teachers in Finland. Successful candidates are very highly academic. Maybe this has something to do with their success too. It's certainly a big difference from the situation in the UK.

I agree that the current government is a complete shambles, but this also doesn't prove that anything that Gove proposes is automatically rubbish.

(Previous comments deleted because all the line breaks disappeared.)

Sam Liu said...

Hi Steve, thanks for your comment. I'll address each of your points separately.

On the question of CSEs, I think that's rather a simplistic & reductive view to take, and will not be borne out in the future.

You are right to say the system is already two-tiered, and that is exactly why I said that GCSEs 'are by no means perfect'. These new O Levels will only worsen the situation. Education needs reform, but not this sort of reform.

With regards to set texts, I didn't say it did. It does, however, prove that we are reverting to old methods. And worse methods in my opinion. Someone's ability to memorise words is not a good indicator of their understanding of literature. And banning kids from seeing the texts they're writing about is not helpful, and will put *immense* pressure on students.

I do provide very good evidence, actually. The bits I quoted were only snippets of Elliot's excellent TES article on this issue. I suggest you read his full piece (which I've linked to).

RE Private schools. No, it is evidence that money can buy you a great education and that you're much better equipped to get into Oxbridge if you went to a fee-paying school. There are slightly more state-school kids in Oxford than private school ones - but if you look at what percentage of the population went to private school & then the percentage of private school students in Oxbridge, you get a clearer idea of the elitism.

On the question of calculus vs food tech (for example), I agree that calculus is very important. But different kids have different abilities and talents, and at the moment the system *only* values academia - if you aren't traditionally academic, you are told you are a failure. That's unacceptable; they're a different sorts of intelligence. I suggest you watch Ken Robinson's superb lecture on this topic(which, again, I've linked to).

I absolutely welcome competition for teaching jobs - but it is an entirely separate issue. We should of course have the best teachers in our schools. But just because the principle of competition works in one area, does not make it a uniform rule of thumb.

Lastly, I didn't once say the government's shambolic nature makes whatever Gove proposes 'automatically rubbish'. He's right, for instance, about the need for the role of the school to be more clearly defined. He's also right, as it happens, that we shouldn't have statutory regulation of the press. I would never and have never dismissed a policy before I knew about it, just because it came from a Tory.

Again, thanks for taking the time to read & respond.

Jacobean Manson Gay said...

keep posting sam.

PRINCE MB said...

Owe some