When is a ministerial U-turn not a U-turn?


The much trumpeted ‘U-turn’ over plans for English Baccalaureate Certificates is anything but, argues Chris Keates.

The question above was on everybody’s lips after the announcement by education secretary Michael Gove that he would be abandoning the introduction of English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs).

However, as we were quick to point out, amid the scenes of celebration and claims of an embarrassing defeat, little has really changed.

Despite the dropping of the EBC title and the plan to franchise subjects to single exam boards, the main elements of his GCSE reform package remain firmly in place. It was immediately clear as soon as Mr Gove took to his feet in the House of Commons that despite the scale of opposition to his reforms from teachers, parents and education experts, he has not had the hoped-for Damascene moment.

The fact is he still intends to make the changes he originally proposed to GCSEs. All he has done is make marginal changes which it is clear do not alter the fundamentals of the policy.

The EBCs may have gone but the EBacc remains as a measure in the performance league tables. This will, therefore, continue to drive the narrowing of the curriculum, reducing the entitlement of children to have a broad and balanced range of learning opportunities available to them. It will continue to be manipulated to force schools into being taken over by predatory private providers.

The secretary of state still intends to press ahead with changes to the grading and structure of GCSEs, despite there being no evidence that the current GCSE system is failing or is not fit-for-purpose, quite the contrary in fact.

Teachers and pupils have been forced to watch the unedifying spectacle of the secretary of state engage in a campaign to discredit the quality and rigour of GCSEs in order to create a case for his flawed reforms – cruelly and cynically undermining the achievements of young people and teachers who have worked so hard to achieve year-on-year improvements.

The punishing timetable for reform also remains despite repeated warnings from the teaching profession and exam boards that introducing the reformed GCSEs in 2015 is unsustainable and could lead to serious systematic problems for schools and pupils. 

Schools need time to train and prepare for the new exams, pupils deserve no less, yet the secretary of state seems determined to press ahead with his plans whatever the cost to young people’s futures and the pressure on teachers. Hopefully, no-one was fooled by the secretary of state seeking to present himself as a “listening” minster.

On the same day the secretary of state withdrew the EBCs he set out new programmes of study for primary and secondary schools. As with GCSEs, these proposals are driven by ideology rather than evidence. 

The current secondary curriculum was only introduced in 2009 and following the Rose Review a new curriculum for primary schools was supposed to come into force in 2011. However, despite this having been the subject of extensive consideration it was unceremoniously scrapped. No evidence has been presented to justify the need for such a comprehensive review of the curriculum.

Despite repeatedly promising greater freedom for schools both programmes of study are highly prescriptive. Teachers will have even less scope to use their professional judgement and cross-curricular and personalised learning will be restricted. 

Coupled with the ever-increasing strictures of the accountability regime, learning opportunities for young people are being narrowed and diminished, leading to disaffection and disengagement from learning for far too many. If the secretary of state ever genuinely listens to the growing concern about the damage he is doing to the life chances of young people then we truly may have something to celebrate.


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