Thursday 21 June 2012

Will this secondary shake-up boost standards for all?

Today's Daily Mail splash on the future of GCSEs, the national curriculum, league tables and exam boards has the air of a brainstorm session at Sanctuary Buildings that has been released before being fully thought through. Nothing wrong with that, if Michael Gove spends some time thinking through all the implications of what he is proposing. But he needs to be careful that his proposals don't end up undermining a wider drive to raise standards for all.

There are some perfectly good ideas in what appears to be being considered. It makes perfect sense to have a single exam board for each exam. The effect, of course, will be to have a single syllabus in these subjects. Which makes the supposed removal of the national curriculum from secondary schools rather less radical than is being suggested: indeed it would ensure that academies and free schools work to a single syllabus. Lord Baker is right to argue that it is as important that technical subjects are examined at a high standard as well as Gove's favoured subjects like history and geography.

The second question concerns the proposal of splitting the GCSE into a CSE and O-level exam. There is a seductive sense to this idea if you believe that the only impact of GCSEs has been a 'dumbing down'. But this is a tabloid caricature. It is perfectly fair to feel that there needs to be more rigour involved in getting an A grade, but that doesn't mean writing off thousands of youngsters who could today strive for a C. There is a terrible canard in the notion that the use of the 5 A-C benchmark itself denies ambition: in fact, a C is worth far more to a child than a D when talking to employers, and the existence of the benchmark has led many schools to push such pupils towards a grade they can achieve in a way that the average point score would not necessarily do.

But there is a good argument for saying that achieving an A grade should be really demanding. With a single syllabus there is no reason why this cannot be achieved in a single exam, particularly since Gove wants to move back to linear testing at the end of two years. That is not to say there is no place for more practical exams in English, Maths and Science. Such tests should be available, however, at GCSE standard of level 2 as well as the less demanding level 1, and less 'academically -minded' students should not merely be expected to achieve level 1. It would be a serious and terribly retrograde step to move in this direction, and Gove will find that it could have as serious an impact as Labour's scrapping of an expectation that all schools study languages through to 16.

This raises the issue of league tables and floor targets. And it is here that Gove could be making his biggest mistake. The big improvements in London and by academies over the last decade have been spurred in part by ever-more ambitious floor targets based on the 5 GCSE standard. It is a realistic but relatively demanding ambition for schools to expect a majority of their pupils to reach this level, and Gove has sharply increased the demand of the floor targets. Of course, one could set a target based on the average point score, but this could have the perverse effect of lowering expectations in terms of breadth. And since there is no longer a strong incentive to use high GCSE vocational alternatives, the main concern here has been addressed. By all means publish a 5A target alongside this, though in truth the EBacc is becoming the more rigorous target here.

Gove has time to get this right. More rigorous GCSEs, particularly for top achievers, do not have to place a cap on ambition for many other students. More practical business-focused English and Maths tests should not themselves be set unambitiously. And Gove should not throw away one of the most effective drivers of improve standards for many schools in the process.

Monday 18 June 2012

Freedom, what freedom?

I recognise quite a lot of what was in the English and Maths curriculum materials issued by the Department for Education last week. They bore an uncanny resemblance to the documents that accompanied David Blunkett's national literacy and numeracy strategies in the late 90s. The expectations on spelling, grammar and punctuation were all there, as was a focus on mental arithmetic and times tables. So, the nonsense in the Tory press about this being the first time since the 1950s that schools had such expectations suggested that they were being even lazier than usual in accepting the line being spun by Michael Gove's spinners.

So far as I can see, all that is really new is that children, bizarrely in a decimal age, will have to learn their 12 times tables in case Britain abandons decimal currency in sympathy with a Greek return to the Drachma.

Equally, today's focus on synthetic phonics is not new either. Phonics were a part of the literacy strategy too, but the specific focus on synthetic phonics gained traction with Sir Jim Rose's report in 2005. This, too, was for a Labour government, for the benefit of confused Tory columnists. However, we didn't, it is true have the phonics screening check which seems to having some bizarre requirements.

So, I welcome quite a lot of this renewed rigour in the primary curriculum. I also think that most primary schools have been doing quite a lot of this, at least since the late 90s.

But I can't for the life of me see how it fits in with the philosophy of a government that insists it will set schools free. Is it any wonder that several members of the curriculum review have quit in the confusion?