As a trainee teacher in the academic year 2012-13, I watched with interest the statement given to the House of Commons this morning by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. He is absolutely right to say that the examination system in state secondary schools in this country is in need of overhaul. He is right to say that the most academic pupils are not pushed to achieve their potential and that their less academic peers are languishing with a false sense of achievement having been failed by an ‘everyone must pass everything’ culture which has led to the degradation of the respectability of our secondary qualifications.
He is absolutely right that something must be done. GCSEs are broadly seen by employers as too easy, often irrelevant and nowhere near rigorous enough to be a true measure of a pupil’s attainment. When the standard we place upon young people to enter further education, be that Sixth Form or vocational college, is often no more than five GCSEs at grade C or above and these can include such ‘subjects’ as Travel and Tourism and Health and Social Care, it is little wonder that GCSEs are belittled and seen as worthless by many. Failure to reform a system engineered to ensure the highest level of results and not the highest level of attainment would equate to failing the next generation of secondary school pupils. It fails those with strong academic potential in not recognising that which should be vigorously cultivated and it fails those who would be much better suited to well-funded, well-taught vocational qualifications by failing to offer precisely that.
There is nothing regressive or divisive about saying that a qualification in Maths, English or Geography should be taught differently to and separate from qualifications in Leisure and Tourism, Hospitality or Motor Vehicle and Road User Studies. Lumping such wildly differing qualifications together under the same umbrella benefits neither and fails both. The left-wing opposition to Mr Gove’s plans disgracefully assumes that vocational subjects are automatically of lesser value to academic ones. This is not what the Government is saying and it is typical of the kind of one-size-fits-all approach to education which has seen this country’s global standing slide dramatically over the last decade. What opponents of reform must understand is that differences are not automatically divisions, they are marks of diversity, something the education system in this country is sorely lacking.
Every child should reach sixteen with good levels of literacy and numeracy and a broad understanding of general scientific principles. That much must not, and will not, change. Beyond these core subjects, however, there is opportunity to push for higher levels of attainment across a vast range of subjects. The new ‘O Level’-style academic qualification can be taught more rigorously, across a broader curriculum to challenge those pupils electing to take it. These pupils will be those who are interested in pursuing the subject in more depth and they will no longer be held back by a teacher having to cater to the lowest common denominator. What it will also mean is that pupils who have no interest at all in an in-depth study of say Geography will not be forced into spending two-years wasting their own and everyone else’s time working, or not, towards an exam everyone realistically knows they are going to fail and which will do them no palpable good whatsoever. This is the reality in schools up and down the country and it fails everyone.
A new, more vocational qualification taught by excellent teachers with good, well-funded resources is a viable and necessary alternative to this production line of low-achievement and valueless qualifications. These courses would not be ‘second class’ as opponents of diversity, individuality and change would have us believe but would be taught to the same high standard and would expect the same level of hard work, motivation and attainment as their academic counterparts. Just as a top-quality History course in Years 10 and 11 will prepare pupils for A Level and undergraduate study, a top-quality Motor Vehicle course, coupled with ‘CSE’-style qualifications for breadth, would prepare the pupils taking it for college or apprenticeships, giving them a grounding that is sorely lacking under the current system. One size does not fit all and we should stop the pretence that it does. GCSEs have lost all their value as a result of this approach so a change is necessary.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Gove’s reforms will incorporate these elements and there are certainly legitimate concerns about having one exam board for each subject but the thinking is correct and it is a step in the right direction. If the Government wanted to truly drive up standards and improve the system then they would champion selective secondary education in the form of the reintroduction of grammar schools. Until then, however, this is a broadly positive move.