Let’s Criticise Gove – but be careful about what we defend

From David Pavett, FE and sixth form teacher, former NATFHE officer and recent author of a study of Labour’s policy processes  

Michael Gove is rampaging round the educational system like a vandal on steroids. It is easy for supporters of comprehensive education to reject most of what he is doing. But we should not automatically defend whatever he attacks. His rhetoric has traction and that is because it often reflects real problems – albeit in his own distorted and bigoted way.

Thus some teachers have defended GCSE from Gove’s criticisms. But are GCSE’s really the examination system we want? He is far from being alone in his criticisms. Thus report after report has questioned the content and level of GCSE maths. Professor Adrian Smith well-known report of 2004 (Making Mathematics Count) is one example among many. It questioned the appropriateness and organisation of the syllabus content and questioned the value of a grade C result. Subsequent Ofqual reports have highlighted the same problems. Most schools do not consider a grade C to be sufficient for going on to study maths at AS level. Many require students to have a grade B and some even insist on a grade A. So even the putative “pass” of a C grade is problematic.

 Discussions with science and modern language teachers suggest that mathematics is not alone in having the sort of problems indicated above.

 Most of us on the left would want to defend a unified assessment system as the most appropriate to the comprehensive and inclusive approach, but it seems clear to me that GCSE is not that system.

 Michael Gove has been criticised for wanting a two-tier system of qualifications. I am sure that he does but don’t we have that already under the umbrella of GCSE? Isn’t that the nature of the distinction between Foundation and Higher levels? Brian Simon pointed out long ago that the originally radical proposal of a unified assessment to replace GCE and CSE was turned into its opposite by Keith Joseph who announced that the new GCSE “will be a system of examinations, not a single examination” with differentiated papers in every subject (Does Education Matter, page 226).

 The reform brought different assessments under a single title while maintaining the distinctions between them. Pupils who have been put in a lower set preparing for the Foundation level know that they have been found wanting and are being served a thinner gruel as a result.

 Our resistance to Michael Gove’s exam proposals should not cause us slip into arguing that GCSEs are what we want to defend. Is not the existence of the Foundation level an admission of failure? And has the introduction of Functional Skills not been a further admission of failure? We don’t just have two tiers, we have a multi-tier system.

 We want an assessment system consistent with comprehensive education but GCSE, as it stands, is not it. Assessment systems tend to reflect of institutional arrangements and just as GCE/CSE once reflected the grammar/secondary modern division, we must expect that in a time of increasing fragmentation of the school system there will be strong pressures for assessments that reflect the differences being introduced.

The real pressures for different assessment systems are going to arise from current institutional changes. The deep problem is that there is currently no political opposition to those changes.


2 Comments on “Let’s Criticise Gove – but be careful about what we defend”

  1. Rebecca Johnson says:

    Totally agree – but just for info, GCSE History doesn’t have tiers, though many schools only ‘allow’ children in higher sets to take it.

    • David Pavett says:

      Thanks. Yes, I realised that Foundation/Higher did not apply to all GCSEs but in trying to limit myself to the recommended 500 words (I got down to 550) some things had to go. You hint that History may be often reserved for the higher set and, as you indicate, that is really another illustration of the problem of GCSEs as an allegedly unified examination system.