Thursday, June 21, 2012

On Gove and the scrapping of GCSEs

Michael Gove's proposals to abolish GCSEs in favour of a return to something like the old O Levels has caused quite a storm. I don't work in the English system so cannot claim anything resembling expertise and perhaps shouldn't comment at all. But a number of observations and questions immediately present themselves so I'll put them here and if anyone can shed any light on them, I'd welcome any comments. They are, in no particular order, as follows:

In Scotland, there is only one exam board. My understanding is that in England there are several and that Gove thinks the competition between them has led to a race to the bottom standards-wise. I can see why this might happen so why can't Conservatives realise the very same principle might operate with other areas in which there is competition - specifically within education?

I have no opinion on whether GCSEs are easier than they used to be but even if one assumes they are, why is the solution to get rid of them, rather than simply making the existing ones more difficult?

GCSEs: why on earth do English pupils do so many of them?

Gove is surely right to suggest that we, or rather you, already have a two-tier education system? As an outside observer, one is struck by how Balkanised your education system is. Part of this has to do with the notion that competition is per se a Good Thing? Brings us back to the point about exam boards, doesn't it?

Teaching to the test has correctly been identified as one of the problems of the 'British schools system' (sic). There's a balanced piece from a leftwing writer here which touches on this point. But I don't see what the point of complaining about this is. As long as schools are ranked by exam results and the career prospects of both teachers and student are affected by them, it will continue. There are only two possible remedies: make the tests better or reduce the quantity of them. What I don't understand is why the latter option doesn't appeal more in a system where young people are obliged to stay in education until they're 18? In this framework, why have exams for all pupils at 16 at all?

From what I've read so far, not one commentator identifies central control as the problem. The twitter feed for #Gove is largely vitriolic: he's pompous, he's living in the fifties, he's wrong in various ways they say - all without identifying rule from Whitehall as a structure that is bound to get it wrong a fair bit of the time. Central government has an opinion on teaching methods (phonics = good), uniforms (good), the way furniture is arranged in teachers' rooms (rows are good, groups bad), streaming and setting (both good, especially the former) and so on. One can't help being concerned that those opposed to Goveism are missing the point here. What you need is not an alternative education secretary who 'gets it right' but the realisation that this level of central government interference is simply absurd.

Scotland vs England. A number of people - including some of my colleagues - think that our education systems are moving in opposite directions. I'm not so sure. North of the border, the new National 5 exams look like O Grades to me, while the non-externally assessed National 4 resembles the old 'non-certificate' classes we had in Scotland under the old regime. It's an element of the CfE that has slipped under the radar.

Gove was privately-educated in Scotland, which I knew - and is younger than me, which I did not. He gives the impression of being nostalgic for an age in English education that he has no personal experience of. How significant this is I couldn't say but what people south of the border should understand is that to be a Conservative here is not so far away from being the political equivalent of a Jehovah's Witness. His Sitz im Leben made him an ideologue.

Whether right or left, in all the commentary there's very little reflection on what education is for - but what just about everyone seems to agree on is that it isn't about the pure pursuit of knowledge, something that Paul Anderson regrets. Criticism of Goveism has focused on the effect his proposed reforms will have on social mobility. Fine if you think the primary function of education is to be the engine of meritocracy but I would finish with the observation that some of us take the view that even if it was possible, it doesn't follow that it is desirable.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Educational blasphemy

I couldn't say for sure because it's been over a decade since I went for one but I'd imagine that if I managed to work into an interview that I placed a high value on uniform, homework and attendance I'd get the ticky-boxy, noddy-head in affirmation sort of response one was once accustomed to seeing at these sort of events.

Yet if I had to pick the three areas that constitute the greatest waste of human energy in schools today, it would be these - in that order.

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