Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The 'New Toryism' of Cameroon Conservatism

I last blogged about the end of GCSEs two days ago, and since then my anger and resentment towards this facile 'revolution' has only grown. You won't find all that many emotions in this blog, but you will today.

You know what I think? I think this is a new departure - and a return for the Conservative Party to some of its older beliefs. Mrs Thatcher (above) was a radical - a Gladstonian Liberal who believed that, if you removed the checks on aspiration and achievement, many more people would achieve spectacular results. She wrenched the Conservative Party out of its torpor - and out of the deeply sceptical and anti-Enlightenment that all change regrettable and probably for the worse (though perhaps unavoidable in the end). She said: let people buy their council houses. Reduce their taxes. Her government abolished O-Levels and CSEs, and let all children be assessed on a single marginal gradient (from 11 As to one E). It also began the moves that bullldozed the Berlin wall between universities and polytechnics. Overall, it was a vision of modernity - of 'progress'. It went wrong continuously, and her confident Victorian view of markets was clearly misguided. I oppposed a great deal of her macro-economic policy at the time. And I still do. But there was some positivity about how the workaday populace were perceived.

The philosophy of the Education Secretary's new EBC, to be taken by all English children around the age of 16? It's got nothing to do with educational evidence, pedagogical concepts, or indeed with schools' actual views at all. There is in fact a mountain of evidence that continuous assessment is highly valued by both students and teachers - and raises attainment. That will be harder when schools (under exam leage table pressure) just look at a single exam, two years away. The evidence for the positive effects of modularity is more mixed (opens as PDF), but does at least suggest that more feedback, better planning and more flexibilty are valued by teachers and students alike.

That's why the most worrying suggestion among all Mr Gove's plans is so-called 'normative assessment' - the idea that only a certain proportion of children can ever attain a grade one, a grade two, and so on. The key consultation document is a bit vague on this (opens as PDF), but the Secretary of State's talk of many fewer students gaining the really top grade must involve some element of achievement relative to other students, rather than a set of skills or knowledge. Otherwise he would simply not be able to make such promises. All this, despite the evidence about how much more able children are at (for instance) processing information these days. Despite the constant rise in IQ levels across the developed world. Despite the march of information technology and new research techniques. No, says Mr Gove, flanked by his new ally Mr Clegg: we have to sort the sheep from the goats. We have to say: there are about twenty to thirty five per cent of the population (or whatever) who are 'academic', and then there are those that are not. Nothing can get better. The world cannot get smarter (it has, by the way). Societies can only be managed, not transformed.

It is a fundamentally depressing return to a Toryism that the neo-liberalism of the 1980s and 1990s looked as if it had buried - one of the benefits of Schumpeterian 'creative destruction', for all its massive and unnecessary casualty list.

1 comment:

  1. What value do academic exam qualifications have in the wider world, are they absolute signals of achievement or used to signal relative status and ability?

    For higher education, they are clearly relative status, I think for employers that is true as well.

    As unpopular and harsh as that view sounds, I think the shrinking of the graduate premium fits with that.