Gove on manoeuvres

Just a week away in the Dordogne and we come back to what is being spun as the biggest upheaval in secondary education since the 1980’s.

The core proposals seem to be a two tier examination structure with one route for about 70% and another for the rest and the abolition of the secondary national curriculum. We are to have more rigorous examinations in primarily traditional academic subjects and only one exam board delivering each subject. EBacc may well become the key accountability measure for schools. A consultation document is promised for July.

It seems clear that a good deal of this is political positioning by Gove. The next Tory leadership campaign seems to have started (does that mean they’ve given up on 2015?) and Gove is looking to build support on the back benches and in the Tory press. It really seems to be a pretty bad reason for turning secondary education upside down.

The spin was firmly a return to the golden age of O level when standards were standards. I’m not sure what that says about the country and the quality of our public debate. We seem to have the assumption that everything is going to the dogs and that something old will automatically be better. I wonder how that approach would play in medicine, engineering or any kind of science. But in education apparently it works every time.

Some of us are old enough to remember the rigorous O levels of the 1960’s golden age. The mantra in my history O level  was “20 facts an essay”. Make lists of facts on every topic, learn them and string them together with a few “and’s”, “but’s” and “however’s”. Grade A guaranteed. And it was. So let’s try and get rid of the idealisation about the past and rather try and understand what young people need to know and be able to do this century.

At the heart of the proposals is the two tier system. 70% to be selected, presumably at 14. It seems pretty clear that the two levels will be radically different so selection will be needed. So any late developers, pupils just learning English or just those who didn’t do a lot of work in their early teens will be shut out of attempting the new O levels. A rough estimate would be that 20,000 pupils who currently get some good GCSE’s (ie A to C) would be shut out under a selective system.

20,000 young lives is a big price to pay to promote Michael Gove’s leadership prospects.

It may well be though that this is not meant too seriously. Nick Clegg has said it won’t happen so we can all rest securely in our beds …. can’t we? It could well be that Gove isn’t too fussed about this – at least in this parliament. What he does want and may well still get is to drive the secondary curriculum back to a narrow range of academic subjects and a focus on rote learning.

Scrapping the National Curriculum is after all pretty irrelevant if your qualifications framework forces schools down the path he wants. And if academies thought they had any kind of curriculum freedom, they’d better think again.

So we need to do more than pick off the obvious target. The case that a narrow curriculum based on academic rote learning is selling our children short is not an easy one to make, given the nostalgia that dominates educational debate. But it needs to be made long and loud.


One Comment on “Gove on manoeuvres”

  1. David Pavett says:

    I agree that most of this is sounding off an aimed at the next parliament, appealing to the Tory base, and positioning for leadership battles. That doesn’t mean that it is not important but it is perhaps best not to treat it as some kind of emergency that we have to drop everything to deal with.

    Sounding off it may be but, at the same time, it obviously reflects some heartfelt prejudices within the ranks of Tory voters.

    These sorts of statements are predicated on a sea of prejudice which has been generated in the past 30 years or so against state schools. To deal with them effectively we have to show that those prejudices are based on a highly selective and distorted view of what state schools have achieved.

    I think that, all the same, we have to avoid defending whatever Gove attacks as if we could define good education to be whatever he is against. To do that would be to open ourselves to manipulation. The left needs to produce its own case to defend what was and is good in state schools while criticising the shortcomings of that provision which has never been allowed to be truly comprehensive.

    Sad to say the missing piece in all this is Labour’s education policy. Where is it? For the moment is all but silent while Gove rampages through the education system.