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Michael Gove plans "major overhaul" of exams and league tables to tackle the "deterioration of standards"

GOVE MICHAEL NW The Sunday Telegraph has the major Conservative policy announcement of the weekend, with news of what shadow children, schools and families secretary Michael Gove has in store to make the "dumbed down" system of public examinations and league tables more academically rigorous.

An inquiry is being carried out for the party by Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College, London, and the paper reports that the following proposals are to emerge:

  • "Giving more points in school league tables for A-levels achieved in "hard" subjects, such as maths and physics, and fewer points for so-called "soft" subjects such as media studies.
  • Removing vocational qualifications, including the Government's flagship new diploma, from league table rankings because they are "nowhere near as academically demanding" as traditional A-levels and GCSEs.
  • Doing away with the Government's current measure of GCSE performance which judges a school on the proportion of its pupils who gain five A* to C grades. Critics claim the measure forces secondaries to concentrate on borderline C grade pupils, ignoring the needs of more able children. Instead, the Tories would introduce a points-based system which would place more value on higher grades.
  • Improving the quality of A level and GCSE exams.
  • Forcing schools to track where school-leavers end up and to publish details of the universities or jobs they go on to."

All these are entirely sensible proposals and build on what Michael Gove said recently when he outlined his concerns about the lack of academic rigour in exams and called for past papers to be put in an online library.

I couldn't agree with him more: when I was taking A-Levels back in 1996, looking at past papers from just a decade previously, it was clear to me that the exams I was taking were nowhere near as hard as those taken ten years beforehand. This trend would appear to have continued, and yet we are still told that the nation's youngsters are getting more and more clever based on the fact that the number of top grades has been going up year-on-year for as long as I can remember.

Until now, there has almost been an unspoken rule among politicians that you cannot question this, as if it were to attack the candidates achieving those examination grades. But it is clear that the system is at fault, and Michael Gove does not pull his punches when speaking to the Telegraph:

"Everyone from Sir Peter Williams, who carried out the Government's maths review, to the Royal Society of Chemistry acknowledge that there has been deterioration of standards. Ofqual, the exam regulator, has admitted that the current level of rigour in GCSE science is not good enough. There is objective evidence from people who care about academic standards that they are not what they should be."

He also expresses serious concerns about how league tables effectively can be manipulated:

"Some schools lead pupils towards qualifications which may not be in their interests, but which are easier to pass. At the same time, exams which are rigorous, such as the international GCSE (IGCSE), does not count at all in league tables. Which is why schools such as Eton and St Paul's, which favour the IGCSE, come bottom in the official league tables. This nonsense can't go on."

"Every A-level is assumed to be of equal value when it comes to measuring school performance but universities do not consider every A-level to be equally rigorous. Cambridge, the London School of Economics and others have warned prospective students that taking "softer" A-levels such as media studies and dance will count against them. And yet the Government insists that all A-levels are of equal weight."

Jonathan Isaby

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