Melissa Benn

Posts Tagged ‘Gove

Last night I took part in BBC Radio 4’s soft focus pre-election programme Two Rooms, along with Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator ( which now, rather amusingly, calls itself ‘ the oldest continuously published magazine..’) The basic premise of the programme is that two groups of people – one broadly optimistic about their lives , one much less so – sit in two separate rooms debating the same issues. You could call it the Two Nations – Sort Of. Very post-ideological, very Radio 4.

In the first programme, which broadcast some moving stories of terrible poverty in Britain 2015, the Two Rooms talked about personal finance; last night the group discussed education and opportunity.

it was an interesting, if frustrating experience. (Recording took four hours – so the programme was heavily edited.) Many in Room A, to which I was assigned, were older and had come out into a (relatively) buoyant job market, where qualifications had some meaning and provided them with a ladder of opportunity. One participant had re-trained, via an access course, to become a physiotherapist. One quiet mid-life woman described how she had gone from her comprehensive to Cambridge, where she was very unhappy, but said that her education had opened up all sorts of opportunities as a result. There was only one privately educated person in the room. From Northern Ireland, he lacked the air of entitlement that so often surrounds his English counterparts.

What these stories showed, I argued, was the impact of recent, and often dramatic, cuts in everything from access courses to career guidance, not to mention well paying jobs; hence the experience of Room B, where those in possession of a degree could not even get any employment, even at the minimum wage. One younger member of Room A spoke at length, and very movingly, about how, at every stage of his life, it was the welfare state that had saved him: free secondary education, help with council housing and social services.

Interestingly, we were there to discuss education but hardly anyone mentioned it, except in the briefest and most personal terms (‘my history teacher really helped me’). There were few complaints about state schools and no mention at all of the last five years of upheaval in our schools under the Coalition. Nor, I am sad to say, did the Radio 4 include my report on the findings of a recent LSE/Manchester University study, by Dr Ruth Lupton among others, that the end result of the Coalition’s prolonged experiment in marketisation has been a marginal increase in the results of the brightest, and a corresponding dip in the results of children from more deprived families. After all that!

That the Coalition education revolution has spluttered to a halt was, however, reflected both in the quiescence and frustration of Both Rooms. Fraser Nelson, a Gove enthusiast, was keen to talk about the transformational impact of a good education, but the ordinary British citizens in Rooms A and B know better. They know that education alone, particularly in a grossly hierarchical system – and not just of schools, but increasingly of universities- cannot fix the problem of opportunity.

There was not a single mention of academies, free schools, bring-back-the-grammars………but plenty of talk about the injustice of unpaid internships, the way education is turning into a business, the need for properly paid work experience, and the need for expert personal and career guidance. Both rooms expressed emotions between dismay and disgust at the fact that a child from a private school has a 200 to 1 chance of getting into Oxbridge while a child at a state school has only a 2000 to 1 chance. A pity then that neither of the rooms came up with a proposal to abolish, or restrict state subsidy, of private schools.

How does any of this fit with the upcoming General Election? Education is proving a rather second order issue, as if the nation itself is worn out with Gove-ite exhortation. Apart from an increase in proper apprenticeships ( which all agreed upon), Fraser Nelson could only really come up with some very second order proposals, such as more speakers in schools, and internships for those from poorer families.

Nelson seems to think that if only the poor, benighted state school graduates could get access to the wonderful contacts and networks of the privately educated, all will be well. This seems to me a profound mis-reading of the way social networks, and privilege, work. It takes a lifetime of opportunity, support, second and third chances to create a Boris Johnson – not one shot at listening to the editor of Spectator at a lunchtime sixth form careers fair.

But if the political right have run out of meaningful answers for the problems of education and employment, something much more interesting is happening over in the progressive/Labour camp. Just this morning, Tristram Hunt announced a potentially exciting development in Labour policy that fits perfectly with the concerns expressed in Two Rooms.

Building on the slow, patient work of recent years, like the Heads Roundtable and the Husbands review, Labour have now come out strongly in favour of moving towards a baccalaureate structure for the 14-19 years, suggesting that they might eventually phase out GCSEs (no longer fit for modern purpose) in favour of a diploma style qualification that will embrace both vocational and academic pathways.

This modern, flexible structure will indeed provide those more vocationally oriented with a pathway to pursue but within the context of a good general education. Within this scheme, every student will have to continue with maths and English to 18, as well as develop certain personal skills and undertake an extended project. The Bacc structure offers a much more challenging and flexible programme of learning and is one that those in both Rooms A and B might have benefitted from, and would, I am sure, support.

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.


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