Not nearly radical enough, Mr Gove

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If Michael Gove wanted to be truly radical in his education reforms, he would scrap GCSEs altogether and abandon national testing at age 16. Former headteacher Steve Farmer argues the case.

Much has been said about Michael Gove’s apparent change of heart over his plans to introduce English Baccalaureate Certificates.

However, terminal examinations still remain a part of planned GCSE reforms and we must ask what merit there would be in introducing a change guaranteed to reduce the number of students achieving success – as a total reliance on a single end-of-course examination would inevitably do.

We have a long British tradition – including the 11-plus – of designing systems in such a way as to label youngsters as failures as early as possible. This could well contribute to the extension of that.

But we must not lose sight of the fact that there is a very real issue to be addressed at GCSE, one which the secretary of state has certainly recognised. In an interview with Radio 4 on the day he announced his u-turn, Mr Gove referred to, “too much assessment and too little learning”. Quite right! Assessment in the UK has got way out of hand. This is an issue any truly radical secretary of state must address.

You can’t fatten pigs by weighing them and you can’t educate students by assessing them. Why do we spend so much time on assessing our students at the expense of valuable teaching and learning? We have all seen the benefits of “formative” assessment which informs and guides provision in the classroom, but our students really do spend an inordinate amount of time being “summatively” assessed for external qualifications.

In recent years, my own school calendar, like many others, showed barely a day in any term on which there was no testing of one kind or another related to external qualifications. The budget showed almost as much being spent on examination fees as on learning materials (other than IT-related ones). Why are we, as a nation, so obsessed with external qualifications and assessment? There really is “too much assessment” and it is undoubtedly detrimental to the quantity and quality of our teaching and learning time.

I am well aware that many countries – including some of those shown in international comparisons like PISA to be achieving higher standards than us – do not share our obsession with external assessment. Rather they trust teachers and schools far more than our system does in terms of structuring and assessing the work of 14 to 16-year-olds. 

Certainly, most of them do not have the nonsense of a major national assessment at 16, which they recognise as being only part way through the education process for the vast majority of their students.

An English Baccalaureate qualification, albeit reminiscent of the “matriculation” that died out well over half a century ago, may have real merit for some students but would it not make much more sense for this to be achieved at 18-plus rather than 16? It is, perhaps, worth bearing in mind that even the old “School Certificate” was taken by students two years later than that at which compulsory schooling ended.

I believe a radical and far-sighted secretary of state would not be rushing to change GCSEs. Rather, he would be abolishing them, freeing up teaching and learning time and removing the straitjacket they create during the middle years of secondary education. He would be looking afresh at an 18-plus focus. This could lead to an invaluable long-term legacy.

I recognise that such an approach would inevitably imply revisiting the gold standard of A levels and that this would be an incredibly courageous thing for any politician to do. However, my experience of youngsters in many parts of Europe is that they are much better prepared for life and further study by the breadth of their studies unconstrained by national examinations part way through their programmes

I would urge the secretary of state to be more radical, to be more far-sighted, and to come up with proposals that reflect best practice elsewhere in the world, that will give a real coherence to secondary education in this country, and which can be implemented over a manageable timescale.

  • This guest SecEd editorial is written by Steve Fowler, a retired headteacher who is now president of Education without Frontiers, a network of schools based across 19 European countries. Email editor@sec-ed.co.uk


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