Sunday, 1 July 2012
O-levels and the Tyranny of the minority
The English Baccalaureate, the return of O-levels, the change of A-levels to a linear (exams at the end of the two years instead of every few months) system, the creation of free schools, the appointment of Michael Wilshaw as Ofsted Chief inspector, the focus on improving teaching...all are controversial. But all have an aim, to ensure that should you be academically smart it won't matter whether you were born into a well-connected middle class family or an unconnected poor family, you can have access to the same universities and jobs in the future.
But when I study the detail of these policies I see a vision of a future of a dispossessed majority - because that what they will be, of pupils born into poor families who are not academically bright and for whom the education system has little to offer, or drops them into situations where they are cast adrift of society.
On a personal note I took GCSEs before A*s existed and you had to get 72% to get an 'A' grade. When I started teaching I found you had to get 63% to get an A grade and 72% would be an A*. I also found that too much of GCSE teaching is spoon feeding and rote-learning and not enough of the analysis and evaluation skills needed at A-level.
Given that A-levels are what gets a pupil into university this is important - because if GCSE level education isn't stretching pupils to be able to handle the jump to A-level then it takes an immense teaching effort to get them there in the two years you have for A-level. Given most state schools' main targets are for GCSE results not A-level results you can see why too many aren't motivated to prioritise A-level teaching. When the Office for Fair Access to universities (OFFA) responds to the obvious result of this (worse results in secondary schools) by suggesting universities make lower offers to state schools I get extremely frustrated. What happened to "levelling-up"?
Anyway - so the original plan was for O-levels to be brought back. Alongside that there was a suggestion that CSEs would be brought back for weaker pupils. At the moment those weaker pupils take a "foundation level" exam at GCSE, the highest mark for which is a C. CSEs allow them to achieve a "top grade" - but employers and universities will see them as second tier qualifications, which is why the Tory government in 1986 abandoned them for the GCSE.
So Gove then says all pupils will take the tougher O-level exam. But that could mean many pupils getting lower grades and finding 14-16 education much tougher. If Gove could come up with a policy that directly addresses the attainment of lower ability pupils as opposed to just those brighter ones he wants to stretch at 'O-level' then it would help. But he hasn't.
Something needs to be done about the diverse directions pupils go after the age of 14. There is a reason Germany has a higher GDP per capita than the UK yet far better income equality. It's their education system. It's not about what happens to brighter pupils either, it's about the less bright pupils. They take exams and assessments at 14 and then are encouraged to take the academic route or a 'technical route'. This means that whilst all learn the core subjects some start learning for a trade and others are learning for university. The better income equality comes from the lower ability students emerging into adulthood with the skills for a profession, rather than what happens in the UK, where they emerge into adulthood having stayed on the academic path competing with those much brighter and having taken qualifications that are unlikely to lead to a job. If Gove addressed this, then great. But he hasn't.
So yes, Michael Gove has identified a problem - key stage 4 (14-16) education. He has identified a solution for pupils like he was. But they are the minority. You don't have to be a foaming-mouthed leftie to identify that this country's education system has put us in a position where those who rule us are from a very small gene pool ('a tyranny of the minority' if you like. If Gove wants to expand that he needs to ensure that he includes as many as possible.
But he isn't.