Thursday, 21 June 2012

Back to O-Levels and CSEs? You have got to be joking...

I always thought that Michael Gove's tenure as Education Secretary would take us back to a not-so-attractive future. But not even I realised just how extreme his plans were.

Until I woke up this morning, that is, and read about his plans to basically take us back to the age of end-of-course exam testing for a new set of O-Levels and a new exam for the 'less academic'. The era before 1988 when English education was, you know, recognisably like the 1950s.

Now we can talk until we're blue in the face about the right balance between exams and coursework. And all-coursework GCSEs did perhaps go a bit far in that direction. We can debate modularity and re-takes until the cows come home. And Mr Gove may have a point there when he says that constant retakes created an endless testing culture that meant that less learning was possible.

So a bit of re-balancing is well within the ambit of a Secretary of State's (voluminous) arbitrary powers.

But to tear up the entire system - get rid of the secondary National Curriculum, get rid of GCSEs, massively reduce or even obliterate the role of coursework - is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It goes against two generations of academic work which show that a good balance between coursework and exams can achieve more than any boring insistence on one or the other.

It also misappropriates everyday language. These proposals (shamelessly leaked to the Daily Mail, of course) have been camouflaged by the release of a confusing, disorientating linguistic gas that turns everything on its head. 'More rigorous', 'harder', 'more academic' - those are the terms in which the new emphasis on exams are couched. For which read: 'easier for those who can bluff their way through exams'; 'good for boning up the night before'; 'helpful to the arrogant and opinionated, but ill-considered'; 'not requiring the consistent commitment to a course that regular assessment asks for'.

The re-creation of the old and completely discredited CSE - the Certificate of Secondary Education which came to be seen as a worthless piece of paper during the 1980s - is even worse. There is a mountain of evidence that streaming towards that exam institutionalised class and racial divides; dissauded students from taking the O-Level in subjects where they were highly academic (because their teachers had them down for a slate of CSEs); and downgraded the achievement of hundreds of thousands of children who gained the old CSE grade 'one' (supposedly equivalent to an O-Level, but ignored by most employers and colleges), which meant that they 'should' have taken O-Levels.

It's hard to avoid the impression that Mr Gove (above) is preparing the most extreme fusillade of proposals he can think of, so that he can bank some gains when he inevitably has to retreat a little.

But the principles involved are more critical than these political games. We need to be releasing potential. These proposals will make our system more arbitrary, more streamed, more inflexible and more forbidding for young people when we need it to be clearer, more responsive and more welcoming to drive forward the very real improvements that our ideological debates about 'standards' obscure. Give me strength.

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