Mr Gove’s awfully big experiment
Michael Gove has announced (again) his intention to scrap modular GCSEs and instead return to examinations at the end of two year courses.
“The problem that we had is that instead of sitting every part of a GCSE at the end of a course, bits of it was taken along the way, those bits could be resat. That meant instead of concentrating on teaching and learning you had people who were being trained again and again to clear the hurdle of the examination along the way. That meant that unfortunately less time was being spent developing a deep and rounded knowledge of the subject. I think it’s a mistake and I think the culture of resist is wrong. I think that what we need to do is make sure, certainly at GCSE, that you have a clear two-year run.”
I have first-hand experience of what Mr Gove is describing. My younger son is sitting two modular chemistry exams tomorrow, which are both, I think, in the form of multiple choice questions. I agree with the Education Secretary entirely that this type of learning has many limitations. It focuses on bite sized learning so lacks depth and runs the risk of encouraging short term memory of facts than a deeper conceptual and contextual understanding. Mr Gove is right; the modular way or working plus resits makes key stage four feel like one continuous assessment.
So I agree with Mr Gove that it would be a much better if instead of passing these tests and being able to re-sit them if they first fail, students should gain their qualifications by answering tough questions across the whole subject at the end of two years (and if they fail there are no second chances).
But I also think it would be much better if everyone was nicer to each other, and if we all decided to give up watching thrillers and soap operas but instead spent our evening playing the piano and reading the classics. Sadly I think my aspirations are just as incredible but – given my lack of power – probably less harmful than Mr Gove’s.
Policy is usually about pursuing a future vision but Mr Gove is explicitly aiming to go back to what he sees as a better past. I have already experienced the schooling nirvana to which Mr Gove aspires for all pupils: I went to a grammar school in the 1970s.
Emanuel was a highly selective school which also streamed all pupils into four attainment levels at the end of year 7. I will never forget the combination of joy, resignation and despair on the day in June 1971 when we were told whether we were in 2S (Oxbridge potential), 2A (red brick potential) or 2L and 2R (working in Woolworths’ potential).
The school also did all of nothing ‘O’ level exams at the end of year 11. Emanuel was a very academic boys school but even then I can remember some of the problems with this way of examining. Obviously, there is a higher hit or miss element. It was just tough luck if on the day of the exam you had a cold or a bout of nerves. Girls faced a mroe predicatble peril.
But my own experience also calls into question Mr Gove’s suggestion that examinations like this lead to a deeper subject knowledge. Knowing that we would need to answer, say four out of twelve questions in a history paper we would decide from a long way out the chunks of the curriculum upon which to focus. If we were prepared for half the questions then hopefully at least four out of six would be ones we could answer.
I also remember how pupils who started off badly in a subject would simply opt out, and with the exam a seeming lifetime away it was very hard to re-engage them. Sometimes the teachers would collaborate and at the back of a class there would be pupils ignoring the lesson while they ‘studied’ something completely different. In the hard cases many pupils had effectively left he schools by half way through year 12. And this was a school which only offered places to those in the top 7%.
Moving forward 40 years, the experience of the RSA Academy seems to reinforce the benefits for engagement of more practical teaching and modularity. The Academy is confident that every pupil – yes, 100% – will reach the old benchmark of five or more A-C grade GCSEs (a benchmark Mr Gove has trashed and is now removing). One very positive consequence of every child feeling they can succeed is that levels of absenteeism in years 11 and 12 have fallen dramatically.
My fundamental concern about Mr Gove is that his ‘demand-side’ theory is both massively risky and completely untested. He believes that by demanding much higher levels of attainment in order for children to succeed he will automatically create a supply of more motivated and cleverer children and more hard working and skilled teachers. By making the stakes higher and more all or nothing he may – I guess – do this at the borderline, but it will surely be at the expense of the motivation and engagement of those who feel unable to jump the rising bar.
If supply is to match demand one of two things has to happen. Either a massive injection of resources, so, for example, many more children falling behind can have one to one tuition (which is clearly not going to happen), or a major breakthrough in teaching and learning so that suddenly many more children becoming academically successful . For this Mr Gove seems to rely on narrowing the curriculum, and creating more free schools and Academies, but there is no evidence that any of these measures will significantly raise attainment across the system.
Since the 1970s the implicit strategy of Governments has been to try to raise standards while at the same time reforming assessment so that more children can succeed. This is not dumbing down because there is no evidence that the steps to make more kids in the lower attainment groups succeed have in any way damaged the performance of those at the top. But it is social engineering based on the principle that it is good thing for young people, society and absolute (not relative) social mobility for more children to feel they have succeeded, to engage with learning and to stay in education post 16 and 18.
Mr Gove’s decision to abandon that flawed but well motivated social experiment in favour of another one – to see if an unprecedented improvement in attainment can come simply from making it harder to succeed – is very radical and will have an impact on millions of children. The natural desire of all of us for more children to reach the academic gold standards plus the generally ignorant and reactionary view of large swathes of the (privately educated) media means this experiment is not subject the scrutiny or debate it surely deserves.
After such a long blog I have so little energy to make up a relevant joke that I am today officially scraping the bottom of the barrel of humorous creativity…..
Why does the Secretary of State for Education think he is the most important minister?
Because Government always has to start with him.
Geddit? Well, if you don’t the first time I’m afraid there’s no second chance.