School pupils sit exams

Earlier this week we saw yet another twist in the educational reforms of Michael Gove. Since being appointed to the role of Secretary of State for Education in May 2010, the issue of GCSE reform has been the defining feature of his reign. It is not necessarily judgemental to say that he has introduced 4 proposals in 3 years although his critics will surely revel in the statistic, using it as ‘evidence’ that he is lacking in competence. While there is always support for Gove’s proposals, it is certain that he also draws a lot of criticism, notably from those in the teaching profession.

Gove’s first reforms were put forward in a government white paper in November 2010 and contained plans to shake up both league tables and the curriculum. He had previously announced during that year’s Conservative Party Conference his plans for a reintroduction of nineteenth century authors such as Austen and Dickens into the English curriculum and a teaching of Britain’s ‘island story’ in History.

The November proposals though mainly focussed on improving teaching standards, wishing to raise requirements for potential teachers and making it easier for ex-soldiers to enter the profession in an attempt to instil discipline among the nation’s youth. Obviously concerned about poor pupil behaviour, it was also suggested that schools have a ‘traditional blazer and tie’ uniform as well as prefects and house systems. It has been traditional suggestions such as these which have characterised all of Gove’s proposals.

January 2011 saw the passing of the 2011 Education Act, taking forward the proposals of that white paper, although the most noticeable result was an expansion in the government’s academies programme. Also in that month, Michael Gove announced a review into what children were taught, stressing that he thought there should be more facts in the national curriculum.

This review was criticised, with the head of the teaching union NASUWT saying teachers “want another curriculum review like a hole in the head”. Gove found himself criticised again in June of that year when he incorrectly attributed Lord Kelvin’s laws of thermodynamics to Isaac Newton immediately after saying “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles.”

Gove encountered further criticism from teachers when he announced that each state secondary school were to be given a copy of the King James’ Bible to honour its 400th anniversary. Questions were asked about how much the policy would cost and critics failed to see the benefits in the initiative. One teacher I spoke to said he thought the commemorative Bible was currently “propping open the R.E room door”, not exactly Mr Gove’s intention. However, the plan did receive some support from those who thought that the Bible is a key part of English cultural heritage, including the vocal atheist Richard Dawkins.

For around 12 months, Gove managed, on the whole, to avoid controversy. However, in June 2012, the Daily Mail leaked documents which suggested a plan to reintroduce O-levels for more able students while lesser students would complete CSE’s. These plans were supported by senior figures in the Conservative Party but again condemned by teachers and students as well as Nick Clegg, who said that the proposals would see the return of a two-tier system.

Details of the plans were not published by the government but it wasn’t long before another education scandal had those within the profession condemning the Department’s actions. As 2012 GCSE results reached schools, it appeared that there was an error with English grades. It later emerged that Ofqual, the government regulator of qualifications, had told exam boards to ‘keep an eye’ on grade inflation, leading grade boundaries to change mid-year by as much as ten marks and many students receiving lower grades than they were expected to.

This resulted in thousands of upset teachers, parents and students, many of whom would have to re-sit the exam the following school year and specific criticism was focussed on the lack of warning that schools had been given of the changes. Michael Gove was again the figure who many condemned though, with the Shadow Education Secretary saying he looked: “increasingly isolated and out of touch.”

This scandal led Gove to announce an English Baccalaureate in September 2012 which would replace GCSE’s although these plans were again condemned by teachers and rejected by Parliament in February 2013. In April, the NUT teachers association unanimously passed a motion of no-confidence against him and he was condemned, heckled and again suffered a motion of no-confidence at the May 2013 National Association of Head Teachers conference.

None of this has stopped Gove in his determination to reform. His latest proposals, formally announced on Tuesday 11th, feature aspects of previous plans. These include removing coursework; moving all exams to the end of the 2 year GCSE period; and creating a more traditional curriculum. It will also change the grading system from the current A*-G to a numerical system with 8 being the highest grade and 1 the lowest.

These, like previous plans, are highly criticised, partly for the seemingly unneeded change to a numerical grading system; partly for the decision to change 9 core subjects first and others later, leaving the first students with perhaps a 6 in maths but a B in art; and partly because the proposals leave teachers uncertain as to how or what they will be teaching in two years’ time.

Teachers have been moved to tears by the regular changes in proposals with the leader of the ATL teachers’ union saying that the changing plans were turning students into “Mr Gove’s guinea pigs.” Meanwhile, the current Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg has accused Michael Gove of “cutting back on re-sits, while affording himself a fourth attempt at GCSE reform.”

While it remains to be seen whether these latest proposals will make their way through the parliamentary process, it can be said that Michael Gove is the most controversial Education Secretary since the late Margaret Thatcher, ‘the milk snatcher’.

BY: Mark Thompson