News of education secretary Michale Gove’s plans to scrap GCSEs made headlines this morning and the story warrants some unpicking.
A pressing question remains about the nature of the new exams. The claim is that O levels are coming back, and the moniker “traditional” is littered across reports.
The leaked document stipulates that the names of the new exams are undecided, though the description of a single exam model and emphasis on ‘core’ subjects suggests that something like O levels are in mind, with a separate exam for those not deemed fit for that challenge.
What is clear is Gove’s motivation: his aim is to ensure “that our education system stands in comparison to the world’s most rigorous”. Questioned this morning in the House of Commons, he defends his decisions by referring again and again to catching up with “the world’s best”, to the UK’s declining position in Pisa tables and to Singapore.
It is unfortunate Gove is so much a product of his times that he can only view education in terms of a global qualifications race, even when other countries are turning their attention to the actual conditions of a 21st-century world, and looking to align their education systems accordingly. When questioned about whether he was looking back rather than forward, Gove insisted that he was looking “outwards”.
It is high time he adopted a more nuanced view of drawing global comparisons in education.
It is all very well for him to call Finland “an outlier”, to avoid responding to the implications of its success, but he cannot claim that one country’s achievement cannot be replicated while seeking to turn the UK – with its divergent history, culture and economy – into Singapore.
US scholars rightly doubt replicating Singapore’s tough standards would have the same effect in their country, where, like the UK, factors such as parental aspiration are less uniform.
Gove also does not seem to have taken on board the analysis of U.S. Pisa results showing that their relative declining scores over time are strongly linked to child poverty. So the US is particularly bad at educating its low-income children, and England appears to the the same – according to this DFE analysis (pdf), in England, “the impact of pupils’ socio-economic background is significantly higher than the OECD average”. Incidentally, the same is true of Gove’s beloved Singapore.
The proposed changes will be reviewed in the Autumn and when the time comes, Gove must not be allowed to defend them on the grounds of global competitiveness, when he is picking and choosing those countries whose values he endorses.
That he is a successful product of exams that divvied up pupils on the basis of straightforward knowledge must not blind him to the fact that forward-looking tests (pdf)today embrace complexity and a wider range of skills, fit to be used by all – not 60 or 80% – of pupils.