A humiliating climbdown?

stash-1-506c57f6608a6Well, the education establishment has greeted Gove’s news of the abandonment of the English Baccalaureate with delight. And, I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised it has been abandonned, nor am I surprised about the delight with which the news was greeted today.  The plans were always ill-conceived, reactionary and would not have been implemented within the timescale set. Labour hailed the news as a ‘humiliating climbdown’. What an extraordinary phrase to use. How about ‘a good piece of common sense thinking at last’?

It was on the 17th September that the announcement of the E-Bacc arrived and as more and more details have been revealed, the condemnation has grown. Michael Rosen in his ‘Letter from a curious parent’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/feb/04/michael-rosen-letter-from-curious-parent) puts forward an argument that the government sees failure is a necessary part of our society.

There was a part of the E-Bacc proposal which did seem to make sense: choosing just 1 exam board for each subject. When I was at school, it was well known that the ‘bright’ kids sat the Cambridge board, whereas those who were less likely to succeed sat ‘London’. I remember thinking it odd even then that we all ended up with an ‘O’ level although we had done quite different work for it. Surely if we are all running the same race, we should have the same course and the same end-point. It seems strange that there can be different courses, run over different terrains, all ending at the same point. But that does assume that one is looking at all the runners as being equal………

I was part of a very small number of people who sat ‘O’ levels and GCSEs. Most of my qualifications are ‘O’ levels, but I did sit one GCSE. It was in German in my lower sixth year. What was interesting was that I had sat French the year before. I got an ‘A’ in my French. When I sat the German exams, I felt my language was nowhere near the level of my French and mentally awarded myself a ‘C’ grade. When the results came out, I was surprised to find that I had obtained another ‘A’. In the selective school I was in, many of the pupils got ‘straight As’. Nowadays, in the same school, many of the pupils get straight A*s. It certainly felt as if there was a ‘grade slip’ – what was previously a B became an A, a C became a B etc.

Then I became a teacher. I quickly came to  realise that the GCSE was a very different beast to the ‘O’ level. It tested different skills. Whilst most of my eduacation had been about learning and regurgitating large amounts of material, the GCSE actually asked pupils  to do something with the information. I actually became fond of the GCSE in some ways because I could see practical applications. As a modern languages teacher, my rote-learning of ‘The little boy is soaked to the skin’ in French had been of little use when I went to work in a pizza restaurant in Paris. The GCSE would have stood me in far better stead.

A final examination places immense stress on pupils – and is a very unrealistic part of the world that we now live in. For my ‘A’ levels (in 1989), I had to write several 3-hour papers. I still have a strange lump on one finger from the pressure of my pen on that finger. And yet, I have never again had to write with that intensity or by hand since I left school. In fact, I can scarcely remember the last time I had to write by hand. My work now is all on a computer, tablet or phone.

Gove has said today that the GCSE must have ‘fewer bite-sized and overly structured questions and a reduced role for coursework’. This takes us backwards rather than forwards. In the research work I am doing, pupils are using mobile devices (whether allowed in school or not) to complete much of their work. Many pupils are telling me that they use videos or audio to record their work; they enjoy problem-solving; they thrive on collaborative learning. Where does this all fit in with the notion of a single, end-of-course exam?

  • Why can’t exams be done on computers, so pupils can draft and redraft their work?
  • Could pupils answer questions orally or submit video evidence for their exam? (I have done for my Masters.)
  • Why can’t pupils make use of the Internet during an examination?
  • Why can’t teacher assessment make up part of the final grade? Teachers have a far better knowledge of their pupils’ abilities than any examiner.

Do we want to educate our pupils for the future? For a digital world of work, where even those in manual trades now find they use technology all the time? For a world where people work together as a part of a team, even one that is dispersed nationally or globally?

I would love to see some schools have the courage to pull out of the exam system, to educate children to be the best they can be and not to just jump through artificial, outdated hoops. I wonder which colleges and universities would have the nerve to accept young people who had been educated but who had not taken exams? Pupils who could be interviewed and assessed by their digital portfolio and recommendations from their teachers?

Until Gove starts to look at the world that our pupils live in and the world they will be entering and assesses whether they are ready for that, then I will still have to award Gove and the coalition an F grade: F for Fail.


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