From ‘Gove Levels’ to EBC and back to GCSEs – 5 quick thoughts

by Stephen Tall on February 7, 2013

The EBC is dead! Long live the GCSE! That appears to be the headline from this morning’s news that Michael Gove is about to U-turn on his plans to reform the exams sat by 16 year-olds in England. Five initial thoughts from me…

Credit where it’s due when a politician listens
It’s easy to slam a politician when s/he U-turns. Politicians are damned when they do and damned when they don’t. Of course, it would have been better if Michael Gove had worked through the details of his plans with the PM and his Coalition partners before they were leaked to the Daily Mail. As it was, everyone felt bounced and an over-hasty, revised set of plans were announced in their place, which left many loose ends.

Michael Gove doesn’t want an NHS Bill, Mark 2
One of the most resonant criticisms of Andrew Lansley’s Health & Social Care Bill from those who were pro-reform was that much of the Bill was quite simply unnecessary. The same could be said of Gove’s plans for a more rigorous, knowledge-based exam system. I strongly suspect he’s worked out that most of what he cares about most can be made to work through the existing exam structures. Why give himself the grief that Andrew Lansley gave himself, especially in the face of serious warnings from the Education select committee and the exam regulation body, Ofqual?

There’s more to Gove’s original proposals than meet the eye
It’s well worth reading the background to the U-turn on this TES blog by William Stewart, in particular how Gove’s original proposals weren’t actually the 2-tier ‘Gove-levels’ that understandably sparked an outcry:

Like them or loathe them, the original proposals that were leaked in June were a much more practical proposition because they were based on reality. It is understood that they were inspired by the system in Singapore where about 60 per cent of pupils are placed on a fast-track course to academic O levels with the rest taking easier N (normal) levels. It is a two-tier system, but it also allows for progression from the lower tier. For some pupils in Singapore, the N level is just a staging post on the way to O levels, which are eventually sat by some 80 per cent of a cohort. These subtleties were completely lost in the original Daily Mail story. And by using the CSE as a comparison, it instantly invoked all the negative, backward-looking connotations associated with the long-extinct qualification.

Not so very different in that respect as the 2004 Tomlinson recommendations for 14-18 exam reform in which students would be able to progress at their own rate through four levels of diploma, paving the way for mixed-aged classes.

The rigged exam board market stays
The aspect of the reforms I was keenest on – abolishing the rigged market of multiple exam boards – appears to have bitten the dust, sadly, amid worries that franchising single subject exam boards could lead to legal challenge (cf the awarding of the West Coast Main Line rail franchise to FirstGroup) and/or subject expertise would migrate to the successful board or be lost, restricting the pool of contenders when the franchise came up for renewal after five years. The Education select committee concluded in its report last week that:

… the speed with which the Government intends to instigate simultaneous market and qualification reform increases the likelihood of problems and may jeopardise the quality of the tendering process and of the qualifications developed.

A final thought
A colleague who is required to remain nameless emailed me this comment this morning:

I would rather have a politicians who comes up with two ideas and retreats on the one that is daft than a politician who retreats on neither, or comes up with no ideas at all.

It’s a fair point.