Clegg and Gove show united front on plan to overhaul GCSEs

by Stephen Tall on September 17, 2012

Nick Clegg and Michael Gove will today present a carefully joined up front as they present proposals to overhaul GCSEs. In June, the two clashed after the education secretary let slip his desire to return to O-levels, swiftly dubbed ‘Gove-levels’. The Lib Dem leader immediately dismissing any notion of a return to a two-tier system exam system which would have likely resulted in high numbers of poorer children in the most disadvantaged areas sitting the CSE exams which would close off their opportunities for later progress into higher education and many professional careers. Their row may also have contributed to the appointment of David Laws as schools minister to ensure a Lib Dem ‘enforcer’, totally trusted by Clegg, within the education department.

Agreement has now broken out, however, with both Lib Dems and Tories now uniting behind the idea of a consciously more rigorous exam system. Importantly, the idea floated by Gove of two-tier qualifications, splitting higher ability and lower ability pupils into separate streams, has been ditched. Instead there will be a single exam paper, reports the BBC, with ‘a greater spectrum of questions within a single paper, graded from easy to hard to show their difficulty’. The highest grades will, it is said, be reserved for “high-flyers”, though how this is achieved without recourse to a crude quota we’ll have to see. The new system has also been delayed until after the 2015 general election, with the first students sitting the tests in 2017.

Generally this sounds positive. A move away from modular exams which saw constant re-takes tending to advantage the middle-classes is welcome; though I hope coursework, a different form of assessment which also helps keep kids on-task during the year, continues to comprise part of the qualification.

Perhaps the more crucial part of the reforms is the least commented-on: the plan to abolish the system of multiple exam boards, a distorted market which many suspect has resulted in schools shopping around for the most lenient markers, and the boards lowering their standards to meet demand. Instead, there will be a single board for each subject with a competitive tender process every five years. This strikes me as a much better system, though with the real risk (as with rail franchising) of appointing a single supplier which fails to deliver. It will be interesting to see what safeguards Clegg and Gove propose to mitigate this.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.