Since my younger daughter, who is just 16, started A-level politics this autumn, every evening meal has been dominated by a spirited discussion on subjects as various as responsible capitalism (do I really believe in such a foolish, contradictory thing?) to the merits, or otherwise, of an unwritten constitution.
Unsurprising, then, that yesterday morning, over breakfast, we were intently discussing the issue of lowering the voting age, following the decision to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. As Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert, said on the Today programme this week, it may be an unsatisfying, rather ad hoc way to bring about such a major change, but it makes the introduction of votes to 16- and 17-year-olds throughout the UK far more likely.
Read the rest of the piece here.
To see previous pieces by Melissa Benn published in The Independent, click here.
Below – a post I have written on the Local Schools Network today on the implications of Gove’s new O-level style proposals:
What with the GCSE regrading fiasco and the row over the selling off of state school sports fields, Michael Gove clearly needed a quick political fix – and some positive publicity – this autumn. And he has got it – if from all the wrong people.
Meanwhile, the nation’s hard-working pupils – many of them now embarking on GCSE courses that the government has more or less officially rubbished – deserve far more than these ill-thought-through changes, and yet more upheaval, in the form of the new O-level proposals, which will officially be known as “the English Baccalaureate Certificate”.
As the incisive head teacher and blogger Geoff Barton asked last night, ” Why would we want to call an English qualification a baccalaureate, especially when it shares so few features with the principles and ideals of the international baccalaureate?’
It is hard not to see this reform as Gove and the hapless Lib Dems playing politics with our schools system. Tabloid headlines have predictably enough hailed an end to “dumbing down” and a “return to rigour”. But what has been pushed as a bold new reform is neither new nor particularly bold. An exam at 16 that all can take, distinguishing the so-called academic and not-so academic in its gradation of difficulty, and its marking scheme? In many ways, that sounds pretty similar to our current GCSEs – although details emerging about the practical implications of the new qualification suggest that a significant number of children will never take it, or take it later than their peers. How can anyone consider a reform that could lead to the potential failure of up to 40% of children ( according to some estimates) progress, let alone progressive?
Very few commentators have yet raised the important question of the revised secondary curriculum that will inevitably underpin the new exams. Gove has always made clear his preference for a more traditionalist, linear curriculum but judging from the disastrous progress of the revised primary curriculum, still incomplete, he may face an even bigger problem with prescriptive new ideas for secondary schools ( none of which will apply to the mushrooming number of academies and free schools.)
Don’t forget: two of the members of the expert panel, on the primary curriculum, resigned from their posts last autumn, and one senior academic Andrew Pollard, spoke out publicly against the “prescriptive” nature of the proposals, which risked generating a sense of “widespread failure” among the nation’s primary schoolchildren. The appointment of Elizabeth Truss as minister in charge of curriculum and qualifications – rather than the more broad-minded David Laws – suggests that a rigid traditionalism will continue to dominate the department’s thinking.
But the real story of yesterday’s announcement is that, once again, a major opportunity for genuine, progressive reform and necessary modernisation has been lost. With the school leaving age soon to be raised to 18, our system must now successfully educate pupils with a wide range of interests and abilities. The case for a massively expensive exam at 16 – once the school-leaving certificate – is no longer proven.
Meanwhile, the international evidence on what makes a modern, stimulating curriculum – from the development of speaking skills to the encouragement of teamwork, in addition to specified subject knowledge – is being rejected in favour of an old-fashioned series of tests, in a narrow range of ‘academic’ subjects, that will surely turn off the majority of students long before they come to sit the 50s-style do-or-die exam.
There has been discussion on this site today of the importance of poorer children having access to a more academic suite of qualifications. A good comprehensive school/ system would ensure this; what it wouldn’t do, in the way that Gove’s qualifications almost certainly will, is ban any child from access to learning in these key areas if they are unable to approach the subjects in question in an old fashioned academic style. A modern curriculum should be broad and balanced, but it should also allow for teachers to approach subject teaching – and assessment of student progress – in a more nuanced, individualised way.
The Tomlinson proposals of 2004 still represent a good starting point for thinking about an alternative approach to our education system, not least in the report’s emphasis on “evolution not revolution” regarding any major reform, including widespread consultation and trialling before implementation; whereas it looks like consultation on this reform will be fairly meaningless. ( Geoff Barton again: “Isn’t the lack of consultation with the teaching profession a critical weakness? Can’t you see that without teacher goodwill it will be difficult to impose an examination that will work?”)
And with its emphasis on a mix of academic and vocational learning, more project-based assessment, and greater opportunities for “stretch” for abler students, the Tomlinson report was far more in step with successful systems around the world than Gove’s backward-looking vision. Much of the derision of project-based school work misses the point. The problem with the current GCSE model is not that it involves coursework per se, or that pushy parents can get in on the act, but that, as part of a high stakes accountability system for both school and child, these projects too easily become part of the deadly exam factory mentality.
Next month at the London Festival of Education, Pasi Sahlberg, the director of the ministry for education in Finland, one of the most successful systems in the world, will challenge UK educators to ditch our reliance “on external standardised assessment instead of … school-based, teacher-led continuous assessment.”
This is not just common sense. It is vital for the future equity of our system. As the OECD reminded us only this week, the UK continues to have one of the most segregated school systems in the world. As our education system further fragments – the untrumpeted part of the coalition reforms – this new set of exams will merely increase success for some, at the expense of the many.
Let’s end with Geoff Barton for a third and final time. “Any chance someone – anyone – could do a bit more work on all of this, so that we can see beyond the flummery and have some proposals fit for the twenty-first century?”
This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared on the Guardian Comment is Free website on Monday September 17th.
Below, my latest piece in Guardian education…..
Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government, who declared himself ‘stunned’ at recently announced English plans to allow unqualified teachers into classrooms. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod
Last week, a British education minister spoke eloquently of the necessity of a highly qualified teaching profession, free university learning and the vital importance of public education as a “societal, not just an individual, good”.
No, Michael Gove has not had a radical change of heart over the summer break. The minister in question was Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government. He and I were sharing a platform at a packed session at this year’s Edinburgh book festival on “the value of education”, with many cogent and passionate contributions from leading academics and educationalists.
Below a recent review of a remarkable book by a remarkable woman, that appeared in the Guardian:
If You Sit Very Still by Marian Partington
Some years ago, while making a Radio 4 series on forgiveness in private and public life, I interviewed an apple-cheeked woman of impeccable middle-class stock. Everyone who trooped through the studio had a gripping story of betrayal or violence to recount, yet, all these years later, it is Marian Partington’s authenticity and intensity that I most vividly recall.
If You Sit Very Still has taken a further decade….read on
Last month I attended a fascinating discussion about the Finnish school system by Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons, an account of how Finland created one of the most successful school systems in the world. In this brief extract from Pasi’s talk, he explains how, in order to create a high quality universal system, the Finns had, first, to abolish private and selective education, which created an unacceptable gap in achievement. This then prompted me to ask a question……… read on.
Over the last eight months, I have been taking the arguments in my book School Wars around the country, talking to parents, teachers, heads in maintained schools: local authority leaders; private, grammar, academy and faith school heads and staff; and many students. I have learned an enormous amount from these discussions about the strengths and divides of our current system and the impact that Coalition policy is having on our schools.
Last week the New Statesman published my edited diary style account of some of these discussions. There is so much I had to miss out…never mind. This gives readers a flavour….