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Neil O'Brien: Michael Gove is confronting Britain’s education disaster - so why are the Left complaining?

O'BRIEN-NEIL Neil O'Brien is Director of Policy Exchange.

I’m baffled.  Stumped.  Totally at a loss.

For years, teachers have been complaining about the narrowing of the curriculum.  Educationalists (many of them on the left) have warned that languages, sciences and humanities were being squeezed out, as schools tried to hit narrow government targets.  

One of their main complaints was that the last government ranked schools on the percentage of children getting 5 “good” GCSEs (a C or above) including English and Maths.  There is some evidence that this did narrow the curriculum.  The number of children learning a language has fallen by nearly a third since 1997.

Michael Gove has responded to these problems by creating a wider measure - which he calls the “English Baccalaureate” as a homage to our friends across the Channel. 

The “English Bac” will measure how many pupils achieved good grades in five specified core subjects – English; maths; two sciences; ancient or modern history or geography; and a modern or ancient language.

But instead of being delighted, various usual suspects (and bizarrely Andy Burnham) are now hopping up and down to say that this is “unfair.”

What’s going on?  I think the main reason is that far fewer pupils will pass this wider measure.  Around half of pupils passed the old measure, while according to the Guardian, only about 15% are expected to get the “Bac”.  That is depressing - but only because it reveals how much we have been underperforming.

If your main worry is that lower numbers might expose widespread failure in our education system, then of course you won’t like the new measure.  If you want better schools, the more demanding measure is good news, because low expectations and low standards reinforce one another. 

The world’s leading school systems set much higher standards (try China’s infamous GaoKao for size). Were we really raising our sights high enough by asking for a “C” in more than 5 (out of say 10) GCSEs? I don’t think so.

Low standards are a big part of the reason our schools are being so rapidly overtaken by the rest of the world.  The OECD’s Pisa programme, which ranks different countries’ schools, recently showed Britain had slumped to 28th place in the world in maths, 25th in reading and 15th in science. When the test began in 2000 the UK was 8th in maths, 7th in reading and 4th in science.

An article in the Guardian argues that it is “unfair” to apply the new measure retrospectively.  But that’s a good thing too, because that means it can’t be “gamed” or cheated. 

There’s a strong suspicion that pupils in some schools have been shunted into doing less rigorous and potentially less valuable “non-academic” subjects, because these subjects were “counted” as being worth several GCSEs.  In a speech this week Michael Gove stated that “In 2004 around 15,000 non-academic qualifications were taken in schools. By 2010 this had risen to around 575,000 - a 3,800 per cent increase”.  Pushing pupils in the wrong direction in order to game the system isn’t “fair” to those pupils. 

One reform will have to wait till next year.  This year’s figures are the last publication of the Contextual Value Added (CVA) measure, before it is axed.  CVA was the last government’s preferred measure of school achievement.  While the motivations for the measure were understandable, many school leaders were left baffled by the page-long equation which attempted to control for every possible disadvantage pupils might face. 

Worse still, in contrast to President Obama’s “no excuses” approach, CVA was the ultimate in excuse-making. Disturbingly, it incorporated lower expectations for children from some minority ethnic backgrounds.  The circular response to low achievement among some groups was to expect less.  In other words, it actually formalised “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.  That’s hardly “fair”.

On taking over the shadow schools brief Andy Burnham said “I think we've largely got good comprehensive education. It's what most people in this country have gone through and it's served them pretty well.”

Compared to previous Labour schools reformers like Michael Barber or Andrew Adonis, I find this complacent attitude really depressing. There is nothing “fair” about a system which fails so many children.  If we are ever going to fix it, the first step is to accept that there’s a problem.


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