Turning a DfE Ear – Gove presses on with deeply unpopular ‘deep thought’ reforms

Auguste Rodin: Le Penseur (The Thinker) at the Museum of Modern Western Art in Tokyo (2011)

“One two is two, two twos are four, …”

COMMENT – The news recently that Michael ‘if I haven’t changed it, it’s soft, leftish and unfit for purpose’ Gove proposes to reform A levels – apparently on the grounds that people keep passing them and failure is something he’s extremely keen on – wasn’t exactly a shock, was it?  This was hard on the heels of his planned ditching of GCSEs, which Gove clearly feels are far too peasy and the evidence is there every August, when most 16 year olds are photographed grinning hugely, punching the air and hugging after receiving their grades.  Presumably, Gove would prefer shots of children sobbing, preferably whilst simultaneously berating their useless teachers for not having taught them well enough.  Still, never one to make hasty judgments (and I can hear that derisive laughter from here, you know), I thought I’d have a close look at exactly what the reform-meister is planning.

I tend to go first to the Telegraph for such purposes, on the grounds that my former paper of choice – the Guardian – is likely to carry a headline of the “Another pile of old squawk from that numpty Gove” ilk, which sort of leaves me with nothing to do.  Interestingly, both papers were much taken with the fact that the University of Cambridge issued a statement saying they were very worried indeed by Gove’s proposal to make AS-levels stand-alone qualifications worth half an A-level and taking one or two years, while A-levels would no longer be modular and would move to final exams at the end of two years.  A spokesman for Cambridge said, “AS is the most reliable indicator available of an applicant’s potential to thrive at Cambridge.”

We all know, of course, that Gove’s reform train is set irremovably on the track leading to the golden age of Yore, when all exams required enormous amounts of mugging up of facts, numbers, dates and quotations, together with an ability to write it all down very quickly before your short-term memory regurgitated the whole, sorry mess on to the gym floor.  Whilst sorting boxes from the loft prior to removing a few years ago, I came across an exam paper from one of my first year university exams.  Not only could I not recall having answered the questions which I had ticked, I couldn’t even recall having learnt two of the topics they covered.  I got a first in that exam.

The spokesman from Cambridge went on to give further reasons to be concerned about the removal of AS levels as part of the overall A level structure.  They give talented but disadvantaged students the confidence to apply to our elite universities, are a “good preparation” for a degree and do “not need this reform”, he said.

The teacher unions, predictably some might say, weighed in with concerns that the proposed reforms were due to be implemented at the same time as the abolition of GCSEs, with imaginable, consequent pressures upon schools.  “This is an unmanageable level of change which could lead to a collapse of the system,” said Christine Blower of the NUT.  I can’t imagine Gove responding with anything more than a casual shrug, given that teachers have responded to a veritable avalanche of change in previous years with their usual,  ‘roll your sleeves up and get on with it, whilst turning up the moaning machine in the staffroom to level 11’ approach.

It was, however, of particular interest that additional criticism and concerns came from leaders in the independent sector.  The Telegraph reported Barnaby Lenon of the Independent Schools Council saying that doing away with the AS level as a stepping stone towards A level would bring about a fall in overall results, and “reduce the take up” of some of the more difficult subjects such as maths and languages.

Gove himself claimed that his reason for the overhaul was that there was “too much assessment and too little learning”, a statement so incredibly lacking in any understanding of what learning actually means that I had to sit back and gape, open-mouthed, for a while.  That he must truly equate “learning” with “mugging up a huge pile of stuff” is the most terrifying aspect of having this man as secretary of state for education.  He went on to say that having a what he calls “linear A level” is “one of the most effective ways we could encourage the sort of deep thinking that we want to have in people.”  I have to say, on behalf of all teachers everywhere, that if what passes for “deep thinking” in Gove’s eyes is learning by heart the whole of Act 1 of Antony and Cleopatra and vast tracts of the other four acts (yes, dear reader, that’s just one of the bits of “deep thinking” I did for A level), then writing very fast in three hours before you forgot forever all the various chunks of information you sat up for weeks cramming in, then education is in for what the Chinese might call “interesting times”.

Michael Gove equates modular exams with an idea of letting everyone keep trying until they pass.  He thinks this is wrong, because he thinks it means they’re getting unfair chances, rather than that they keep trying until they’ve actually learned what they need to learn in order to reach a particular standard.  Unfortunately, Gove has also painted himself into a bit of a paradoxical corner with his approach to examinations.  He shares with the spluttering masses who cross the social divides and write regularly to the Telegraph and the Mail, the belief that standards have plummeted because too many children now pass at both GCSE and A level.  On the other hand, he is required as education secretary to believe that more and more children can and should be able to reach “the required standard” and so manages to hold simultaneously the views that exams are too easy and must be made more “rigorous”, but also that teachers ought to be able to get close to all of them passing even the harder exams.

Even more unfortunately for all of us, Michael Gove doesn’t listen to anyone who doesn’t agree with everything he believes.  The Local Schools Network reports that he calls the education establishment “The Blob”, has recruited to his handpicked team only those school leaders and education professionals who are wholly sympathetic to his views and proposals and as a result, will hear no criticism.  I don’t know about you, but I find the concept of a minister who won’t listen – not even to spokespeople from our greatest university and from the Independent schools he rates so highly – and who equates “deep learning” with memorisation, more than a bit worrying.

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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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