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The Education Select Committee is wrong to defend the GCSE

BaldJohn Bald on the Education Select Committee's lazy defence of the status quo

The key points of Michael Gove's A level proposals are well known - final examinations rather than continuous assessment, a genuinely supplementary AS course, and systematic involvement of universities in examination design and evaluation.  Our friends at The Guardian posted this video of Michael explaining his ideas and further details are here.

This is not, of course, to say that they like him. They have gone flat out to attack everything he has said or done, apart from a positive piece on yesterday's excellent decision to include computer science in Ebacc. They're not greatly concerned with fairness, though they have done something about the level of personal abuse in their comments column, partly in response to my complaints (I go into this lion's den under the pseudonym Quaestor, and have yet to be eaten, even by Michael Rosen). The bottom line, though, is that they think Michael is wrong, and are entitled, like the select committee, to say so.

I think he's right, for reasons that go back to mistakes made by Crosland at the start of the comprehensive era,  and which have been compounded over the years, by Conservative as well as Labour ministers, to the extent that only a radical reshaping of the system can make it work properly in the interests of our children.

The first point is that the system set up by Butler under the 1944 Act was not a golden age. Grammar schools provided a good education - sometimes an excellent one - for the pupils who were selected, which enabled them to compete successfully, and on equal terms, with those educated at the best public schools. Many of the rest had a very raw deal indeed.

I know someone who overcame 11+ failure to gain a PhD from a top university and become a leading scientist. I know more who should have passed and did not, and whose lives were damaged. I suspect most of us who took the 11+ know similar cases. I was inclined to support comprehensive schools on the grounds of opening up opportunities for those who had been unfairly treated, which was the case Labour made at the time.

Unfortunately, the public presentation hid an agenda, best represented by Michael Young, of downgrading the development of knowledge, skills and understanding as the basis of education, as this gave an advantage to those with the highest abilities in literacy and maths. Such pupils did not only achieve more, they were in a completely different league. They could handle the finer points of language, or calculus, or nuclear physics.

Those at the bottom of the heap could not even spell "science" - I know, as I've taught many to do so - or even, and this is a real example from an Essex comprehensive, "stool" (local pronunciation was close to "stall"). The goal of being fair to everyone, to which I still subscribe - the most important thing I do is teach people to read - was replaced by the ideology of holding the best back. Michael Gove knows that, but for his parents, he could have ended as a neet rather than an Oxford history graduate. His conference technique of letting the beneficiaries of his reforms speak for themselves exemplifies it.

Sponsored academies, and particularly ARK academies, are not public schools or grammar schools, but, as Sir Michael Wilshaw puts it of his own school, "grammar schools with a comprehensive intake". That is, a fair chance for all.

Michael's opponents - my opponents - are ruthless, efficient and well organised. Brave Katharine Birbalsingh was sacked within a week of telling the truth. In research, they control what is investigated and how, cherry pick and spin results, and abuse their academic authority by rubbishing evidence that they don't like in the media. They have infiltrated and colonised professional associations, examining boards and most - not quite all - university education departments.

As they know that there is no public support for low standards and lack of basic skills, they invariably disguise their goals as "breadth" - eg Margaret Beckett on introduction of AS - "Employers have been telling us that they want young people to join them - pause for effect - with more breadth" and use ridicule as their chief weapon of attack. In the meantime, those us trying to improve things on the ground and in the classroom have to battle with this deadweight of ignorant authority imposing its view whether right or wrong, as in the response to Elizabeth Truss's well-argued proposals on maths that I discussed last week.

And now enter the Select Committee, whose report this morning, the result of what it calls "a very short enquiry", makes the Cabinet Secretary with his "little review" of the evidence against Michael Mitchell look like Miss Marple. It took evidence from one witness only - Michael Gove - has one written paper on languages, from Dr Terry Lamb, an academic heavily committed to the previous government's approach, and uses as evidence a note from a seminar under Chatham House rules, which is so true to the principles of Chatham house that participants are not even identified. Apart from the inadequacy of this as a basis for scrutinising the government, it is undemocratic and an abuse of parliament for the select committee to publish as evidence a summary of a secret seminar, on a matter not concerned with national security, without even identifying the participants.

It is also lazy. Before announcing its reforms, the government undertook wide-ranging consultation of hundreds of people of all shades of opinion, organised by the civil service. Some of this was confidential, and not all advice was taken, but there is a difference between legitimate consultation and presenting unidentified opinion as evidence.

It is not hard to pick a group of people who have built their careers on the status quo and invite them to give the government a pasting, though I note in passing that even the committee's unidentified sources said that the present system encourages mediocrity by not providing effectively for either the most or least able. Where are the views of Her Majesty's Inspectors, of the Royal Society for Chemistry, of the Association for Language Learning?  Bad enough to give one unrepresentative, if distinguished, individual a free hit in an unopposed paper - these critics are not identified at all. I'm reminded of McGonagall, presenting as evidence on the Tay Bridge Disaster. "At least, so many sensible men confesses..."

We expect scrutiny and at times criticism from the select committee, but in return we are also entitled to expect competence. GCSE, it tells us on the basis some unidentified testimony, "represents relatively good value for money."  I don't believe it, and I don't know anyone outside an examining board who does believe it.

Incidentally, the committee welcomes the improved participation in Ebacc subjects - subject to the achievement of good grades - at the same time as it criticise Ebacc for focusing on them. As a linguist, I believe Ebacc has saved the subject as a mainstream option, and know that most linguists, whether or not they are Conservative, and even whether or not they like Ebacc, agree with me.

In the meantime, the real work continues. My thirteen year old who did not know his tables continues to consolidate and speed up his success, and is working on subtraction. As he has not been taught English, I've taken him right back to Galore Park's So You Really Want to Learn English Book 1, as used in the private sector, and he is learning to answer comprehension questions in sentences.

I've succumbed to pressure of time, and he is watching one episode of Simon Sharma's History of Britain each week, picking out the three most important points  from each episode and saying why they're important. He is writing simple French sentences accurately. All things he should have been doing from the age of seven, with some adjustment in history and science to teach him at his intellectual level at the same time as we build up his basic skills.

People are educated one at a time, and the job of the education system, public, private, or in this case voluntary, is to enable this to happen. Michael Gove's examination reforms are a key step in this process.


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