Bacc Passage – Gove gives GCSEs an old-school seeing to

COMMENT – I’m always amused by the notion that changing the name of something will de facto cause all and sundry to believe that the thing itself is better.  For example, I’ve always known that Sellafield is Windscale and that it’s probably chucking just as much radioactive pollution into theIrish Seaas it did under its former nomenclature.  Remember when the Royal Mail wanted us all to call it Consignia?  That appallingly ill-judged re-branding lasted about a year, at who knows what cost to a brand that was still well regarded; since then, the Royal Mail’s fall from grace has been astonishing, hastened it must be admitted by its daft habit of employing criminals as posties.

It was, therefore, with a resigned sigh that I greeted the announcement recently that Michael ‘I destroy all before me, Haha!’ Gove has decided that GCSEs are total pants and will be replaced by a much-improved version – based on the golden age of O levels, when exams were exams, albeit only sat by about 20% of children – called the ‘English Baccalaureate certificate’.

Of course, in the old O level (and let’s not forget its scruffy Bash Street cousin, the CSE) days, there were no league tables, no paradoxical notions that all schools could be in the top half of such tables, no targets set based on the concept that children were identical raw materials which, given good enough teaching, could all be fashioned into shiny A* lovers of Shakespeare and no Ofsted Chief Inspector making sweeping, unsubstantiated and damning comments about teachers every five minutes.

Some re-brandings make no difference whatsoever, other than to annoy massively those who despise change for its own sake.  In the late 80s, I tried unsuccessfully to encourage the children I taught inWest Londonto enter shops and repeatedly ask for Marathons, on the grounds that as a name, Snickers was just horrible.  I recall that the best response I got was ‘What you on about, Miss?  It’s just a name, innit?’

Given that no-one ever thought Marathons were as good as Mars bars anyway, I’m still struggling to understand why Gove didn’t just change the existing GCSE exams – it’s not as if those employers he claimed had ‘lost confidence’ in GCSE wouldn’t have understood that he’d changed them, they’re not all thick – just the ones who think that you have to change the name of something to show you’ve ‘improved’ it.  I’m also stunned by the concept that we have to call our signature examination by a French name and one, moreover, that those same employers who are taken in by the name change business will struggle to spell correctly.  I attended a meeting with a group of employers shortly before I left the profession in 2007 and two of them repeatedly called the qualification ‘GSEs’, so heaven knows what the adult world is going to make of a hard French word.  If we have to have a French term for these new exams, I favour PDDC, short for ‘petit déjeuner du chien’.

But let’s unpick the more important changes (you know, the ones he could have made to GCSEs).  From 2015, there will be no more coursework, which is the work of the devil and was clearly introduced by Tony Blair, as it cannot possibly have existed under previous Tory governments.  Unfortunately for this particular myth, not only was I teaching GCSE English – via 100% coursework – to those same West London cynics who mocked my anti-Snickers campaign (and I will remind readers that the prime minister at that time was one M. Thatcher), but my own O level English was obtained via the writing of 15 coursework essays and stories.  I was 16 in 1974, by the way.

I can understand the chief opposition to coursework, in that it’s rather easy these days for children to make use of the internet, for parents with the right skills and cunning to assist their offspring and for beleaguered teachers threatened with the loss of their jobs if their children’s and the school’s targets are not met, to ‘assist’ their pupils.  Here’s a good essay question for a subject I’d like to make compulsory for all intending education ministers, Ofsted inspectors and DfE wonks, EBacc ‘Cause and effect’:  “Threats, insults and the use of data by those who do not even understand the concept of an average has caused English examinations to fall into disrepute – Discuss.”

Another change which Gove feels will make the Ebacc certificate examinations more ‘rigorous’ than GCSEs is that they will be examined by a terminal, three hour exam.  Once again, I’m dipping into my own historical memory, where I find that none of my O level exams was longer than two hours, some were an hour and a half but there were, crucially, two papers in most exams.  Now, call me an experienced teacher who has spent an awful lot of time invigilating examinations (as well as sitting them), but what I do know is this:  one exam of three hours is a really bad idea.  Not only does it put two years of eggs into one, single, ‘no place to run to, no place to hide’ basket, if you’ll excuse the poor metaphor, but it unfairly discriminates against the hay fever sufferers, the girls with dysmenorrhea, the children from volatile backgrounds, the children who go to pieces in exams – it’s probably the worst possible thing you could do to the widest possible range of children.  It also greatly advantages those of us blessed with the ability to write quickly and coherently under pressure; I still recall a tutorial during my first term at university when my essay was handed back to me with the curt comment, ‘You won’t be able to get by for very long on so little substance just because you can write convincingly, you know…’

Gove has declared that there will be no ‘tiers’ in the new Ebacc certificate, so that all children will sit the same paper in each subject, set by a single examination board.  I’m intrigued by this concept and desperate to see some sample papers, because the very reason for the existence of the tiers in the core GCSE subjects is that some pupils simply cannot do the higher level questions.  I’ll set aside the scenes I can already envisage in the sports hall when some children are made to sit for three hours in front of an exam they can’t even understand and turn to the time-honoured means of passing time during an exam:  making a nuisance of yourself.  Instead, I’ll open a book on just how long these single papers in English, maths and science last.

I expect that if I asked the DfE about the wisdom of setting single paper exams, they’d respond with the suggestion Gove has made about allowing some pupils to wait until they’re 17 or even 18 to sit them.  He clearly didn’t bother to mention this concept to a secondary headteacher before suggesting it in public, because it would then have been pointed out to him that secondary schools are examined on their results by cohort – in other words, each year’s results are a % of all pupils who will be 16 in Y11.  Is he going to change that?  I’d respond with a question: ‘does the Pope go to mosque?’

What we have, once again, is the making of important education policy on the back of a very small envelope.  There’s no room on the envelope for any wider consideration of implications, ramifications or – crucially – the effects of the policy concerned.  Gove careers on aboard his runaway steamroller, flattening all semblance of coherence, breadth or balance within secondary education, in pursuit of his goal:  making schools easy and ripe for privatisation.  Out go the expensive bits, such as technology, ICT and exams that all children can actually have a go at finishing and in comes a cheap, easy, outdated curriculum which puts facts learned purely for an exam in place of the application of key skills to knowledge.

I’ve heard some people claim that Gove is taking schools back to the 1970s; they’re wrong and I’ll tell you for why.  Even at my comprehensive school in the 1970s, those of us in the ‘grammar’ stream were obliged, for the sake of breadth and balance, to take a practical subject amongst the string of ‘academic’ ones.  No, Gove is doing something far worse.  I suggest we re-brand our current education era – we could call it ‘the 1950s’.

Please submit your comments below.

Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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  1. Ah, Helen…if this was a perfect world you’d be given a free hand to run education….or to slap (repeatedly and with as much power as you can muster) Gove et al.

    I’d even let you run Scottish education!

  2. I for one welcome the abolition of coursework having been involved in it, in Mathematics, for far too long with the “bottom” sets. Having to give up my time to “mark” work which almost always always began “I am doing this project ‘cos it’s interesting” and then seeing the same dribble of work which was totally beyond students capabilities and which was far from interesting to mark. Perhaps I can be accused of not making it interesting enough but my main aim (which I believe I did achieve very successfully) was “bums on seats.

    Whilst I am in a RARE positive mood, I am also glad to see the back of A* – at least Am Ego Vex (anagram of Gove Exam) did not introduce A*****.

    BUT those unfortunate students, as you rightly point out, having to sit ONE tier of exam – unbelievable.

    Reminds me of my early days of moderating examination papers and the examiner set a question involving a very posh menu in a restaurant. When I suggested he use an Indian Take A Way menu instead he nearly had a palatial fit and had the audacity to say that he didn’t even have any black children in his school, let alone any who would order such food.

    BE AFRAID, be very afraid.

  3. Ah the old Marathon Snickers debate! Oh sorry I forgot the real point of the article which is yet again the egotist that is Gove enforcing his ridiculous vision or should I say lack of it, on the poor masses.

    Helen as always you get to the point that the man is clueless.

    You really must stand for parliament. You get my vote!

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