In 1956 I took an exam. The 11-plus. I passed it. This divided me from 93 per cent of my mostly working class chums. I got sent to the Grammar School. They got sent to Secondary Modern School, because they were only “good with their hands” and could never do cerebral exams. We clever clots did lots. This was in 1960. They were called O levels – for the top 20 per cent. Dull, yet grimly rigorous.
In English we were compelled to unleash drear essays about our holidays or texts by Dead White Blokes like Dryden. Honest. Mere information retrieval. I passed them. Any fule did. Then I passed lots more and became an English teacher and taught the same exam to the same top 20 per cent in 1967.
We young guns campaigned for change. Things did get better. There were comprehensive schools and, in 1965, the CSE exam. This measured the next 40 per cent. We banged on relentlessly for more creative writing, coursework and oral exams. Some ministers even listened – like the fierce Sir Keith “Mad Monk” Joseph. More tots should be “stretched” said he. And kapow! We had the GCSE! In 1986. A Very Good Thing! Things were looking up – not just at GCSE level, but also at A level. Original thinking and imaginative flair was sought and rewarded. A*s blossomed.
“This can’t go on!” said Tory Big Wigs. Why? Too many tots are doing too well – like girls and working class and state school pupils. We want more incurious dullards to man (and not woman) the shrinking workforce.
What to do? Send for Noddy and the Cleggo. “Too much teaching to the test!” opines Cleggo. Too right. “Too much dumbing down!” pipes the Nod. “And insufficient rigour!” Yo! Nod!
So they ditch 40 years of exams – lock stock and module – and invent something called the EBacc. “We need to meet the challenge of the 21st century!” We need to get EBacc to the future – to 1956, say, or 1960 – to my old O level with those Dead White Blokes and a bit of the old Dryden. Dull yet terrifically rigorous. Mere information retrieval. Let’s have an exam, which nourishes a much more robust failure.
“Less will take it and some not at all,” they drone. Like my Ronald Crumlin or Dave Mania, the working class. They can go to the wall. Or build one, what with being rather “good with their hands”. If there’s any work. The Dynamic Duo zoom off for a photo-op at a modish Academy. They grimace and look as guilty as grammar school boys waiting for the cane. Tweedledee and Tweedledum – stop messing with our curriculum.