September 18, 2012 1 Comment
By Alex Bryan
On Monday 17 September, Michael Gove officially unveiled what he hopes to be the defining policy of his time as Education Secretary, and indeed a flagship policy of a government that has so far struggled to define itself beyond its austerity measures. The introduction of an English Baccalaureate as a replacement for the much-maligned GCSE is a policy which has on the whole been greeted by a fanfare of approval chiefly motivated by the common belief that GCSEs have become ‘dumbed down’ and ‘soft’.
The initial reaction has involved little scrutiny of the proposed examination which will replace GCSE’s, with the majority of media attention being focussed on the merits of the GCSE as a qualification. The GCSE, Gove claims, is too easy, open to abuse and ‘spoon-feeding’. The steady rise in exam results over the years has been taken as a sign that the exams are failing our youth.
Of course, there are many who oppose Gove’s reforms. On news bulletins in the immediate aftermath of the announcement however, they came across terribly. Head teachers from across the land appeared on television, saying they were worried the new exam would be too rigorous, so hard that students would not pass it.
By all accounts, this is exactly the kind of opposition that Michael Gove would have hoped he would encounter when proposing these changes. The response to this kind of criticism is simply to say that an exam which all pass is failing to do its job.
This objection to the EBacc is playing into the hands of those who have been moaning about GCSE’s for years; it hardly dispels the notion that those who oppose the reforms are ‘soft’, or inclusive to the point of absurdism.
This is a shame. It is a shame because whatever one thinks about GCSE’s as qualification, there are glaring problems with Gove’s proposed replacement. To reject the status quo should not necessarily involved accepting the possible change. Indeed, upon examination, there are parts of the Ebacc which seem incoherent, and some parts which seem quite ridiculous.
Firstly, the proposed 3 hour exam length is simply preposterous. At 16 years old, there is absolutely no reason why an exam should be 3 hours, other than to make a vague point about ‘rigour’. Any French exam should cover reading, writing, listening and oral – what is the benefit of forcing a student to take these all in one mammoth 3 hour stint instead of in separate examinations? By making exams this long, Gove has placed an ability to concentrate for a long period of time above actual knowledge in the hierarchy of skills in the education system.
Secondly, the banishment of modules and coursework, whilst a politically popular move, makes little sense. In some subjects (music, art, dance, drama), modules are simply essential. In others, they are not, but they do make a lot of sense. In many subjects, coursework is the only experience a 16 year old will have of actually doing the subject, rather than learning about it. In geography, history and English, there is a very strong case for saying that coursework, done properly, advances students’ ability in the subject far more than an exam.
Thirdly, it seems that rather than address the central problems of GCSE’s, Gove has simply amended them to make them look more like O-levels. The question of why this exam is at 16, not 18, has not been answered. Now that the school leaving age is 18 rather than 16, it surely makes more sense to have exams at the end of it rather than at 16, when pupils who do badly will want to leave but be forced to stay.
Whilst the policy of the EBacc is hugely flawed, the politics of its introduction has been masterful, so much so that Gove has even been able to manage the criticism of his policy. Those who oppose the EBacc need to define themselves more clearly. One can dislike both GCSE’s and the proposed EBacc. One can think there are good ideas in both of them (the scrapping of competing examination boards is an excellent move). It is not necessary to defend every aspect of GCSE’s in order to oppose the EBacc.
What is most important is that this becomes a substantive policy debate. It is instead threatening to become an O-level love-in, in which everyone over the age of 40 complains about falling standards in the style of Monty Python’s four yorkshiremen. There are parts of the EBacc that should be opposed; instead of decrying it for being too hard, those who do oppose it should be drawing attention to its numerous flaws. It is our best hope of ending up with a better exam system.