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Mr Gove’s awfully big experiment

June 27, 2011 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

Michael Gove has announced (again) his intention to scrap modular GCSEs and instead return to examinations at the end of two year courses.  

This is what he told Andrew Marr yesterday:

“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.



  • Ian Duffy

    I was with you until the terrible joke.

    The change I regret the most from the Coalition Government is the introduction of the English Baccalaureate. I believe that, far from freeing up curriculum time, will focus the efforts of schools towards using ALL curriculum time to squeeze through pupils at the threshold of attainment. This then removes all space for the broader education and life skills that most people believe schools should transmit to young people.

    But not to worry, says Gove and his minister of state for schools, as this will be driving all young people to succeed regardless of background. Or the alternative way of looking at it using their descriptors is that some young people will hold a qualification that isn’t a qualification, and the autonomous schools will be driven by a performance standard that isn’t a performance standard. So that’s all clear then.

  • Leon Cych

    It seems we have freedom of choice and diversity in everything except the curriculum and exams.

    Looks pretty centralised and short term to me.

    If we had multi-agency involvement with “real” scientific method, for instance, where the ability to explore and investigate rather than dead ended high stakes “results” driven outcomes we have at the moment we’d be richer as a country in all sorts of ways.

    Not everyone will go to Oxbridge and there is such a thing as a Gaussian curve

    There is no vision behind this I’m afraid; merely retro retreads.

  • Matt

    The thrust of this whole piece appears to be “the present system has its faults, but the alternative also has its faults”. It’s also based on individual anecdote. Not by nature invalid, but not very representative, either.

    What’s the objective here? The model for perfection in teaching and examining secondary school learning, or a consensus on the least ineffective way of doing this? I’d argue we should aim for the latter, anything beyond that is a bonus.

    As we’re in anecdotal mode, I did my GCSE’s when they were still sticky-paint new. The mixture then was what in retrospect can probably be called an appropriate hybrid of the very set-piece-focused older system that Gove harks back to and the apparently uber-modular approach used today. Some blend along that spectrum is likely to prove the best approach.

    I’ve always thought that perhaps our preoccupation with the means of examining learning rather obscure the more pressing problems we have with the increasingly weak and unfocused nature of the syllabus.

  • Sam

    Interesting post. Isn’t the missing link here something around the “soft bigotry of low expectations”? Gove et al’ argument is that you don’t need to increase raw intelligece so much as increase expectations and aspirations of both staff and students that they can achieve. The critique that they make is that too many theoretically A*-C GCSE students are given vocational equivalents because it is feared they won’t engage otherwise – not because they are intrinsically unable to cope with it. Remove that bias, and attainment will naturally rise.

  • Max Hogg

    Long, but you kept at least one reader reading to the end – it’s rare to do that for any written media these days, or so we’re told.

    You often talk about the importance of finding what it is that debate opponents actually disagree on – that too often they/we are debating at cross purposes, and rarely answer each others criticisms.

    In this vein I suspect what is really underneath these reforms is that for Gove and his team, a striving for excellence amongst the few most talented kids is more important than the absolute social mobility on which you remark. There is a compromise (whether it is a necessary compromise or not I’m not sure) between the goal of making all children feel that they have succeeded, and pushing the most talented to achieve to their fullest potential.

  • Phillip Ward

    Three points
    1. The whole of Michael Gove’s approach is centralist , not localist and based on opinion not evidence. Academies and free schools are being freed from local control to be run by Whitehall
    2. There are forms of modular assessment which support more extended and in depth pieces of work rather than multiple choice tick sheets which in my view are really useful only for reinforcing learning at the end of a module not assessing understanding
    3. In the real world the ability to demonstrate short term memory and exam technique is of little value compared to the ability to research and collaborate with others.

  • matthew taylor

    Thanks for these great comments. To pick out one, I agree with Max that there is a genuine debate to be had involving difficult trade-offs. What worries me is that we aren’t having it.

  • John Dowdle

    What strikes me about the current government’s proposed reforms – whether health, education or forest-related – is the apparent determination to enforce totally untried changes on a national system.
    Surely, it would make far more sense for Mr Gove and the DoE to ask for schools to participate in pilot programmes in order to be able to assess how successful – or otherwise – these reforms may be?
    It is not rocket science, I know, but surely we need to adopt a precautionary principle where the future of future generations is concerned?
    Also, is any consideration being given to meeting the personal, social and career needs of young people in any of this reform thinking? I doubt it.

  • Livy


    But there is one other thing that members of the media who disappoint you have in common apart from schooling or ignorant, reactionary views. And we needn’t even go so far as to mention all the disgraceful criminal activity recently exposed…and not well reported on. Most of them share another weakness.

    They write.

    And a few of them do it well.

    There is a greater elegance, however. An incomparably rare strain of beauty runs through mathematics that makes it stand alone and stand above the type of species-level narcissism frequently betrayed by those of us who merely study each other or economies as social scientists. Assaulted by fundamental constants of the universe, the wisest of our ancestors began to break free of superstition by discovering a secret language that unlocks nature’s mysteries. It does this by standing above any breed of social, racial, gender or political theory, and the amassed contributions of its experts, as well as the humility of their conduct, can put an honest (or at least sober) wordsmith to shame.

    Mathematics is more than a mere school subject. It is unimpressed by something as young, confused and dangerous as humanity. And It will outlive us.

    There are several other issues and strands of conservative thinking beneath the surface that we’re likely to hear more about once Gove is eventually replaced as Education Secretary in the next reshuffle. Probably by one of the new and arguably more right-leaning MPs from the 2010 intake. There is a belief in some Tory circles that the UK is critically short of mathematicians and even moderate mathematical skills, and this is hurting the poorest and most disadvantaged in society the hardest. I’m no Tory but in all fairness, it is possible to make an intellectually coherent – and sincere – argument for this that doesn’t amount to ‘Rich People Hate Poor People’. Britain is an effective outlier in lacking a requirement for all students in post 16 education to continue studying maths.

    As for the policy, it’s hardly a surprising move from Gove. There is *some* method in what he says, but it’s way too soon and should be done incrementally if he *must*. He’d do better to take away coursework units first, or qualifications that are 100 per cent coursework, and then bring in the new (or old) big exam.

    The politics of this is what everyone thinks it is. It’s precisely because it’s so obvious that I don’t want to believe it, and why I will often avoid discussing education policy entirely. The view of many in the profession is pessimistic, that the DOE are relaxed about the prospect of state schools’ marks cascading and a lot of disadvantaged kids failing; those schools can then be turned into academies, and soon afterwards central Government will no longer be responsible for poor exam results. Or something like that…

    All the hoo-ha over resits is something a lot of people react to with shoulder shrugs. The idea of resits irks conservatives for the same reason that A Level students who demand their exam papers be remarked irks conservatives (even if their own kids do it). There are some on the right who don’t like an aspect of society which they feel can be generously described as increasingly litigious – even if they choose not to express it that way and probably cannot, for fear of sounding shrill or obsessed by personal responsibility. There were shadows of this in Cameron’s remark on AV recently when he said he didn’t like the idea that some people are given “a second bite of the cherry”. Electoral systems aside… otherpeople may not need more than one than one bite.

    Questions around who they are and why one bite tends to be enough would get the media into a decent conversation worth having. But as is so often the case, it is invariably those who do not look hungry who get fed.


  • Ursy

    I think the real problem is that children going through the schooling system we have in the uk are not given any real purpose, their own personal imagination and ambitions are being squashed, school is all about( from the academic view) passing the exams at the end of the year, whether it’s sats or gcses and ticking the box,yes they can do basic fraction work yes they can draw a graph etc. I think that this kind of system is far too limited and means that especially kids who are generally not that academic come of even worse in their exams then children who are more that way I think that we should not be worrying too much about whether exams should be Modular or not,but how we teach children and what the overall educational aim is.what do we want school to achieve?

  • Leon Cych

    I do think that problem here is that SoSfE are often incredibly ill informed and have to rely on a coterie of Think Tank consultants fresh out of Oxbridge who are even more out of touch. Statistics around data not fit for our modern world seem even more of an irrelevant excrescence – we are one of the most data rich countries in the world when it comes to “achievement” “attainment” and “results” yet we seem to have lost our way when it comes to learning and education.

    What is needed is reflection and vision. Look at John Wadworth’s measured response to the School Based initiative served up as the latest panacea:

    Being able to treat education as research and at a highly localised level is going to be more effective than any blanket policy statements or initiatives.

    Can’t have one to one teaching? Then change the CRB rules and co-opt retired people, volunteers, many others to achieve that.

    I would recommend people visit the purpos/ed: ( site to see how people envisage reconnecting with teaching and learning.

    If we are going to avoid a chain of schools set out like Tescos locals across the land then we really do need to reconsider what it is we actually want as a nation in educating our children.

  • Livy

    This is a really decent thread.


    …how we teach children and what the overall educational aim is. What do we want school to achieve?


    Obsession with results and league tables are what stand in the way of that urgently necessary, mature question being cried out loud more often that it is.

    The overall educational aim should be for the individual, child or adult, to enjoy learning.

    The more enjoyment there is the more adaptive and accepting the mind becomes to outside disciplines; the more somebody learns, the more they realise the whole point of education is to learn, above all else, the extent of their own ignorance.


    I’ve always thought that perhaps our preoccupation with the means of examining learning rather obscure the more pressing problems we have with the increasingly weak and unfocused nature of the syllabus.

    Right. But we’ve reached a stage where neither exams (which really measure short term memory retention, writing speed and accuracy of information regurgitation) nor coursework (which measures how adept a teacher is at cutting corners on behalf of students) are actually reliable indicators of a child’s ability. And wasted ability is the thing we must avoid above all else.

    Obsession with measurement is the problem; as a consequence we fail to understand that schools’ results cannot be taken seriously – they’re invariably fudged. It’s another horrible aspect of modern life that ensues when policy-makers become preoccupied with raw data and treat human beings like abstractions. Certain GCSEs have schools producing 100% of their students with an A-C, ICT for example. Under pressure to meet targets and ensure every child is above average, teachers have opted for exam boards who offer this and assess purely on coursework.


    The critique that they make is that too many theoretically A*-C GCSE students are given vocational equivalents because it is feared they won’t engage otherwise – not because they are intrinsically unable to cope with it. Remove that bias, and attainment will naturally rise

    That’s quite a roll of the dice though. Especially as we’re already toying so carelessly with the hopes, dreams and future life chances of British kids, many of whom already feel the generational brick wall between themselves and adults has risen higher and closed in at a quicker pace than ever before.

    It’s a bit like the argument for having universities set A Level exam questions in order to counteract the same problem we’re discussing here. There’s something in it for sure, but it would mean a lot of kids in the initial guinea pig years will fail their exams.

    It was once described to me by someone in education policy, and a fierce proponent of this, as an underlying need for society to stop narrowing its gaps. That’s the kind of thinking that should worry us. Not the policy details.


  • John Dowdle

    It seems to me that the focus has shifted away from individual young people towards a fixation on teaching and examining. Surely, the principal purpose of education – educare – is to help the individual learner to achieve their potential, both to fully realise themselves and to make as full a contribution towards the greater society as they are capable of?
    As a Life Fellow of the RSA, I attended an induction meeting at RSA House, along with around around 40 to 50 other new Fellows. What struck me on that occasion was that most of the new Fellows had achieved significant success in their chosen fields DESPITE their earlier education and not because of it.
    Quite a few – like me – left secondary school with no qualifications at all.
    Most of us picked up the knowledge, understanding and skills we needed for our life development through a combination of work experience and tailored part-time education during our working lives. Many, too, had accessed higher education at a later stage in their lives at a time when they knew where their specific interests lay and were in a position to access the appropriate further and higher educational provision suited to their requirements.
    Perhaps we are OVER-educating our children? Are we in danger of attempting to stuff their heads full of stuff they do not really need? Surely, we should make education a life-long process, into which any and all individuals may dip in and out as they need to?
    In all truth, how many people ever use differentiated calculus after leaving school? Surely, we should equip young people with basic life skills, such as basic literacy and numeracy to a level where they can cope adequately with being able to read and understand bank loan applications, completing job application forms, understanding basic finance so they gain an understanding as to the real cost of obtaining and paying for credit, sex and personal relations, citizenship, etc.
    Thereafter, government should raise taxes on all employers and offer rebates to those employers who offer industrial and commercial apprenticeships and provide training (possibly in conjunction with FE and/or HE Colleges) to their young employees, such that they then acquire the appropriate levels of knowledge, skill and understanding required to become an industrial chemist, IT technician, bank employee – or whatever.
    Access to higher and postgraduate levels of study could also be financed through a training tax in areas such as teaching, engineering or whatever other areas are considered to be priority areas for the overall economy and society.

  • Livy

    @John Dowdle

    Awesome comment dude!

    Perhaps we are OVER-educating our children?

    It’s often struck me that they’re over-educating themselves, and it’s something that never ceases to impress me. Information is now one of the most widely available and indeed affordable commodities – young people now have educational resources at their disposal that previous generations couldn’t have dreamed of.

    For example, we can observe how quickly young musicians are able to become proficient and develop stunning levels of technique in their instruments by learning from free lessons on Youtube. Seriously. And the instructors on those video lessons are the very legends and pioneers who recorded iconic music we all know – they’ve just found online tutorials to be another way of reaching a wider audience, passing on knowledge and – yes – maximising their income now that record sales have declined. Everyone from Joe Pass to George Benson, Al Di Meola to Slash from Guns N’ Roses have done this. And kids are dramatically better musicians as a result.

    In all truth, how many people ever use differentiated calculus after leaving school?

    Well…OK. But it’s also the wrong question to ask. You also go on to mention a great idea for producing more high skilled workers such as IT technicians through commercial apprenticeships. Absolutely, and the IT GCSE and A Level are nowhere near fit for preparing kids for those jobs. Without wanting to sound like a broken record on the mathematics issue, it’s precisely because of our weakness in this area that we don’t have computer programmers who can produce as many lines of code per day as Indian software engineers. Many countries who outperform us in that area do so by stressing the vital importance of mathematical skills in children from a very young age, and it provides routes out of poverty.

    If this trend continues, one consequence could easily be more businesses relocating if they can’t find workers skilled enough at home, and definitely an uptake or overtake by Chinese and Indian universities. Worst case scenario could be increased social inequality, as the excellent maths students British institutions do send out into the workforce are highly prized, but come predominantly from independent schools. Individuals lacking mathematical skills stand to lose £136,000 in income over a lifetime, something that’s been estimated to have cost the UK economy £9 billion since 1990.

    A third of larger firms are now recruiting from India, particularly from The Indian Institute of Technology, and 25 per cent from China. While the US and UK are educating fewer maths and science graduates every year, universities abroad are producing them in record numbers; European countries have taken note of the global inbalance and are starting to up their game in the global maths economy. France, for example, now has 160 mathematics graduates per million people, compared to 119 in the UK.


  • Livy

    But there is one other thing that members of the media who disappoint you have in common apart from schooling or ignorant, reactionary views. And we needn’t even go so far as to mention all the disgraceful criminal activity recently exposed…and not well reported on.

    …..Given the events of the past few days since I posted that comment, I’d say scrub that. Let’s actually go so far as to mention their heinously disgraceful sub-human criminal activity. Ignorance of maths be damned.