The Gove Strategy rolls on across 14-19 education

Trevor Fisher writes:

The GoveTurn on February 7th has been advertised as a defeat, even by his supporter Fraser Nelson in the Spectator. However it is much overstated. The dropping of EBC is very welcome, but the Ebacc remains in place and he said so twice in the statement.  The only real shift was not to have one board per subject. This is welcome, but not a major U turn and some see it as tokenistic. That upheaval was always dangerously high risk.

The big picture remains that Gove has an agenda which is clear from his correspondence with OFQUAL, on their website: transformation of 14-19 education along Goveian lines. In this context at 14-16 level the Accountability Consultation is important. Not to take part in, but to see if anyone can change anything. And then there is Abacc. Not a term they use now, but one we should now use given the Facilitating Subjects issue I discuss below.

Before getting technical, I would flag up the underlying theme of headline data in the DFE press releases. Whatever the league tables say, it is what the DFE press releases say and the press comment which flows from this which is crucial. As with Ebacc, and now with Abacc, Gove is changing behaviour through league tables, giving us control by press release.

The myth of the balanced curriculum

The Accountability proposals seem to offer a broad, balanced, comprehensive curriculum. Alas the fine detail show more relation with the tiered schooling of the Taunton Commission (1864), now being solidified. The various exam options of course always include English and Maths GCSE, and it is clear that Gove still thinks he can get most kids up to grade C in a harder exam, as his letter to OFQUAL of 6th February shows. That madness needs a separate discussion.

The Ebacc/academic core is still there, 3 subjects from the list are decreed (essentially the Facilitating Subjects) which makes 5. Then students can do 3 from either the arts, a vocational area or more academic (ie Ebacc) subjects to make 8 in total.

Thus there is a three tier system. All 8 can be Ebacc Academic, so the independent and grammar schools are fine. Then a mix, with even computer science added to the 8 perhaps. Or a vocational bias, an EBAcc 5 plus 3 voc quals. So we could see Grammar, mixed or technical schools emerging. Within this there is no requirement to do all 8. If 5 A*s at 10points (for example) gets 50 and 8 Cs at 6 gets 48, a school might prefer a pupil to do 5. It is the points score overall that counts.

And para 5.9 allows only 5 subjects, English and Maths and then 3 Voc Quals. That would be the secondary modern option I guess, so all schools have their place.  So this formula is worse than the 19th century prescription, a 4 tier system is possible. But the key will always be the academic core as Gove calls it, and here we find in the OFQUAL letter of February 6th a clear steer to a first and second rate curriculum.

The core subjects will be revised, for first teaching in September 2015, and his instruction is to “begin work immediately on revising the GCSE regulatory arrangements as informed by the policy set out in this letter”, and this is stated to include new syllabuses “in at least the fcts: English Language, English Literature, maths, biology, chemistry, physics, combined science… history and geography”. Remember the list- it reappears at sixth form level. He realises languages are a nightmare, so they can shuffle along with the other second class subjects. Teachers in the academic core subjects must have the new syllabuses by September 2014.

The Abacc and the Facilitating subjects

Gove had already pulled the same trick at A Level, without public notice, in a letter to OFQUAL on 22nd January. Gove decreed that there would be reform of A Level, for first teaching in September 2015 but this time OFQUAL was not to be in charge. This time the Russell Group will be. He says “I am delighted that the Russell Group is planning to create an organisation to provide advice to OFQUAL on the content of (the) A Levels… most commonly required for entry to our leading universities”. These he clarified later in the letter as “facilitating subjects” which must be “ready for first teaching in September 2015”. How far Russell Group had any choice about the plan is unknown.

On 24th Jan, the league tables appeared with their information on those schools that had got passes in 3 of the 8 facilitating subjects at AAB, the DfE dancing to Gove’s tune.  The Russell Group announced on 24th January that they had indeed set up the committee. Or at least the Vice Chancellor of Warwick, Nigel Thrift (I have not made that name up) said “we are considering proposals to create an advisory body to provide advice to OFQUAL”… and this committee, in consultation with other universities, will consider Maths/Further Maths, English Literature, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History, Modern Languages and Classical Languages. Thus Ebacc rolls on into Abacc.

And as the league tables stand the key metric is now 3 of this list. This new rule violates the current practice. As Henry Stewart has said on the Local Schools Network site, the actual Russell Group rule is 2 out of 3. Other subjects can be included, and the flood of comment since the decision was announced has pointed out that even 2 out of 3 is not actually required. But as Henry pointed out from his son’s experience, within DAYS of the league tables being out, pupils now think 3 out of the 8 are the tariff. I have not seen Russell Group moving to counter this myth. The documentation still on their website (21st February) is still 2 out of 3, which is itself wrong.

How long will this remain the case depends on what Thrift does. It is clear the Group is being marched down the 3 facilitating/Ebacc/Abacc route. Willingly or not? The answer depends partly on how effective the resistance can be.

Gove is not Cocking Up and Has NOT been defeated.

The DfE web site was not, as Henry suggests, a cock up, and Fraser Nelson is wrong to see a defeat on February 7th. Gove had worked out how Ebacc and Abacc would roll on and had already told OFQUAL what to do. Why Gove wants to create a system the Taunton Commissioners would have recognized, I cannot begin to imagine. But what he is doing is very clear. There are many weak points in his strategy, and as Michael Bassey has argued, a Perfect Storm is brewing.

But give the Devil His Due, he is clever, determined and on a mission. Understanding what he is doing gives pointers to how to stop him, but let’s not imagine this is a Comedy of Errors. He is the Man Who Would Be King, and he has a plan to get there. Stopping him will need an equally well plotted counter strategy starting from understanding his game plan. 14-19 is a battleground where he can be stopped, but not if we think he is already faltering. He has not yet made a false step. Ebacc remains and the media will be told that and Abacc is the only show in town. And as the media will report this unless given another meta-narrative, Gove is on the road to victory.


2 Comments on “The Gove Strategy rolls on across 14-19 education”

  1. trevor fisher says:

    dear john

    thanks for this. will tell patrick henry and martin to take a look and coment. Hope for a lively debate!


  2. David Pavett says:

    I agree with Trevor that Gove’s EBC reversal was not a major defeat. Some opponents to Gove’s transformation of education have allowed their dislike of what he is doing to get the better of their judgement. When he doesn’t get things 100% his own way it is not time to celebrate. He will no doubt feel quite happy having to settle for 95%. Let’s face it, he is a man with a plan and he has transformed the English education system at a greater rate than any of his predecessors to realise that plan and he is still on course. There is a lot of brilliant work being done to expose the truth about Gove’s plans. The trouble is that, so far, that work is without clear political leadership.

    On another note, I wonder why Trevor thinks it is madness to think that the majority of kids can be got to grade C in Maths and English. He says that merits another discussion. I think that we should have it. What exactly is/are the barrier/s to such an achievement?