Monday, 22 August 2011

The danger of dumbing down GCSE statistics

Damian Hinds, a Conservative MP, tells us this morning that a set of figures he has compiled from Parliamentary Questions 'show categorically how, over 13 years, the last Labour Government undermined the lifechances of a generation by steering them away from the subjects that employers value most.' Having been a part of that Government's education policy for six of those 13 years, I must have missed the deliberate steering.

It is true that - in line with the approach generally advocated by the Conservative front bench towards the National Curriculum - Estelle Morris removed compulsion in modern foreign languages for 14-16 year-olds, in order to focus more on 7-11 year-olds and to allow a disaffected minority to pursue vocational options. But then it is equally true that a concerted drive from 2006 by Labour ministers to encourage take-up in STEM subjects has halted a decline that began under the Conservatives in subjects like Physics and has led to big improvements in take-up of science and Maths subjects at A-level and GCSE for five years. It is also the case that when it became clear that there was some 'gaming' going on as a result of GCSE equivalences - equivalences that had been recommended by independent advisers for courses that at the time had little take-up - the Labour government shifted the main GCSE measure from 'any GCSEs and equivalents' to one that includes English and Maths.

That remains the main measure by which the Government judges schools; and under it, the number of schools with fewer than 30pc of pupils gaining five good GCSEs including English and Maths fell from 1600 to fewer than 100 last year. Michael Gove has raised the benchmark in response. And the proportion of pupils gaining five good GCSEs (or equivalents) including GCSE English and Maths rose from a 35% in 1997 to 54% in 2010. Indeed even if one focuses just on GCSEs and excludes all equivalent qualifications, the proportion is 49.5%, still a substantial and real improvement.

So, it is simply nonsense to suggest that Labour was engaged in some elaborate dumbing down exercise. Indeed the Labour government maintained and strengthened the Standards over Time work started by the previous Conservative government. Labour's main interest was in seeing far more schools and pupils reaching a benchmark that is accepted by Damian Hinds' colleagues as valid; in that it succeeded so well that the floor targets have been kept by the coalition.

But it is also the case that academic qualifications will not be the answer for everyone: we need more technical and applied options of real value, something Labour tried to achieve with the Diplomas, and succeeded in some like Engineering (according to Tory adviser Sir James Dyson) and IT. And the current Government really does need to decide where it stands on pre-16 vocational qualifications: Alison Wolf thinks they're generally a mistake if they take up more than 20% of curriculum time; Ken Baker wants more technical education from 14 with his excellent university technical colleges initiative. The truth is that the academic core of the EBacc will not be right for every student, which is why Labour focused on English and Maths, and saw substantial improvements in both, especially in the poorest schools. Rather than trading silly insults, perhaps  Mr Hinds, whose Conservative-led education select committee recently damned the EBacc, could assist in resolving the split in his own ranks that really does matter to young people's futures.

1 comment:

Teeler42 said...

Whilst, I agree in general with your sentiments, the remaining problem is that of GCSEs as the standard fare, currency and measure of individual success and institutional performance.

For at least 50% of the KS4 cohort, GCSE is not an appropriate programme of study in general, even accepting the importance of achieving a relevant qualification in Maths and English by the end of Y11. The eBacc and Wolf's recommendation that vocational programmes constitute no more than 20% pre-16 will simply result in more disaffection amongst Y10 and Y11 pupils.

The emergence in the latter years of the Labour Govt. of Foundation Learning and Functional Skills (whilst by no means perfect in all ways) at least offered those who are simply turned off by the standard KS4 National Curriculum diet of 'academic' subjects in GCSE guise, a meaningful alternative to firstly, getting a foot on, and secondly progressive au the attainment and achievement ladder.

That such initiatives have been put into cold storage by the Coalition, is an testament to the educational prejudices of the current administration and a failure totally of 50% of young people destined to leave school at age 16.