Michael Gove goes Bacc to the future

The education secretary’s plan to restore rigorous teaching and end-of-course exams is a blast from the past worth welcoming.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Topics Politics

The English Baccalaureate, announced last month by the secretary of state for education in England, Michael Gove, is on the whole to be welcomed. The new system, which will replace the current GCSE system, will mean a single end-of-course examination for students (primarily 16-year-olds) finishing secondary education, and a single examination board. The aim, according to Gove, is to have ‘truly rigorous exams, competitive with the best in the world, and making opportunity more equal for every child’. Teaching for the new courses is due to begin in 2015, with the first exams in 2017.

Initially, the exams will focus on three core areas: English, maths and science. Later, the template will be extended to include history, geography and languages. One problem is that this prioritisation of core subjects may not take proper account of the fact that education is essentially a cumulative process. A range of different types of subjects, taught and studied properly, have a cumulative effect on a child’s knowledge and intellectual capabilities. They help create a wider and richer conceptual framework, which makes understanding academic content easier. I also think there are very good grounds for all pupils studying a subject with a larger practical component, such as music, art, cookery or design, as a complement to, rather than replacement for, more academic subjects.

Nonetheless, Gove’s initiative to replace the current modularised system of GCSEs is a good thing. GCSEs contain a high level of coursework that can be submitted at far too many points in the two-year course and also re-submitted repeatedly. Gove’s plan is a positive development, not least because it is a serious attempt to address educational problems with an educational solution. He is a rare politician who at least recognises the nature of the problems in education correctly.

There have been two main criticisms of the English Baccalaureate, both of which really say more about the critics’ own lack of understanding of, or unwillingness to face up to, what has been going on in schools. Stephen Twigg, the Labour shadow education secretary, dismissed the plan as an attempt to bring back the past. Maybe it is. But it is wrong to assume that nothing from the past is worth recreating. Others have expressed worries that the proposals may lead to a two-tier education system, like the bad old days of O-levels for brighter students and CSEs for the rest, or that there will be no place for things like the extended essay that is part of coursework assessment in some subjects.

The concerns about a two-tier system are profoundly misplaced. The problem right now is that, under the GCSE system, we have something like a 50-tier system. Pupils are assessed, sorted and directed to particular subjects in a number of hidden ways. For example, one school gave Year 9 pupils a science test towards the end of the academic year. Pupils were told that one question was optional. Later, the results of that question were used to decide which pupils would be entered for separate science subjects and which would do the less challenging courses in double or functional science. Furthermore, if a pupil is a borderline case between foundation and higher-level GCSE, it is not possible to enter him or her for both exams. A decision has to be made at the start of Year 10 and that will determine the course content (or lack of it) for the next two years of study. This is far less equitable or flexible than the old system, which enabled pupils to study for O-levels but also be entered for the CSE, just in case. As for the extended essay, its place should be in the ongoing practice of teaching history and English; it does not need to be part of a national exam to be worthwhile.

Those who criticise the English Baccalaureate on grounds of elitism would do well to take a look at the current syllabuses and methods of assessment used by most schools for GCSEs, and compare these with the exams used by elite private schools. This example is from the specifications for the Edexcel 2009 English Literature course – the kind used by most state schools – and the specifications of the International GCSE (IGCSE), which is chosen by most independent schools. (‘AO’ stands for ‘assessment objective’.)

The Edexcel guidelines for assessment state: ‘AO1: Respond to texts critically and imaginatively; select and evaluate relevant textual detail to illustrate and support interpretations: 35 per cent; AO2: Explain how language, structure and form contribute to writers’ presentation of ideas, themes and settings: 32.5 per cent; AO3: Make comparisons and explain links between texts, evaluating writers’ different ways of expressing meaning and achieving effects: 17.5 per cent; AO4: Relate texts to their social, cultural and historical contexts; explain how texts have been influential and significant to self and other readers in different contexts and at different times: 15 per cent.’

The equivalent IGCSE guidelines for 2010 say: ‘AO1: show detailed knowledge of the content of literary texts; AO2: understand the meanings of literary texts and their context, and explore texts beyond surface meaning to show deeper awareness of ideas and attitudes; AO3: recognise and appreciate ways in which writers use language, structure, and form to create and shape meanings and effects; AO4: communicate a sensitive and informed personal response.’

The differences appear to be mainly ones of terminology. But behind the different wording lies an important difference upon which rest two very different ideas of what constitutes the study of English literature. It is actually revealed inadvertently if we compare the two AO1s. The Edexcel AO1 suggests that what is important is that the pupil’s response is both critical and imaginative, using supporting textual detail. Yet it is quite possible for pupils to produce a response, supported with relevant details, which actually makes little sense in the context of the text as a whole.

That is the key problem. The Edexcel criterion focuses on the pupil’s subjective response to a text. In the IGCSE, the focus is on the text itself, or as AO1 puts it, its ‘content’. The IGCSE emphasises the importance of the understanding and exploration of objective meaning, not subjective response.

Of course, Edexcel AO2 and AO3 may seem to be about meaning, but look more closely and you can see that actually the guidelines focus on how a pupil presents meaning, rather than the actual meaning itself. This encourages a situation, not uncommon in many classrooms today, where a pupil may be skilled in identifying instances of a figure of speech like alliteration in a poem, but he or she remains completely baffled when asked to say what the poem is about, or what it means in his or her own words.

Official national exams are meant to embody the most important aspects of each subject. But as this example from Edexcel shows, the important aspects of a subject are precisely what is missing from the existing exam regime.

What this means is that those who wish to retain the current syllabus and assessment are, in effect, denying the majority of pupils access to proper knowledge. The educational sociologist Basil Bernstein wrote that all pupils should have a pedagogic right to access knowledge that is powerful. This does not have to be restricted to a particular type of school, or associated with a particular type of politics. It does have to be intimately connected with proper, ‘powerful’ knowledge.

Gove has not indicated if he plans to use the IGCSE as a template for the Baccalaureate. But if a linear, end-of-course exam offers a better chance for teachers to provide this subject knowledge, then everyone who recognises the value of knowledge, and who thinks all pupils should have a chance to be introduced to it, whatever type of school they attend, should welcome Gove’s plans.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Topics Politics


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