Gove faces his biggest test

I’m sure you’ve all heard it: that typical, old-school teacher moan. “Back in my day”, is the usual opener, “exams used to be much harder”. The concept of grade inflation has been troubling the nation for some time. With results improving every year it seemed as if the time had come for, yes, results to go down. Really?!

The politics of education is one of extreme importance, fragility and perverse incentives. On one hand there is the need for rigorous foundations to be in place for the productivity of future labour; on the other is the need for impressive results to suggest the existence of excellent schools and good things to come.

What has happened in this market of exam boards is very much the ‘race to the bottom’ that the press have been talking about – better marks should have meant better performance, but this hasn’t been the case. Those of you amongst the recent generation of GCSE-ers will know that AQA is, more often than not, easier than Edexcel, and that if your school is offering IGCSE, think about heading off. Disparity amongst exam boards has been rife simply because there has been the incentive for these companies to make exams a little easier.

One of the ways in which this has manifested itself is the farce that is the modular system. Pupils can take individual examinations in each section of a subject, in nice, small chunks. This means that it is possible to revise smaller amounts of material at a time and work harder for the next module if the first went badly. To add to this, a ‘retake’ culture has emerged whereby students can, having taken papers in January, have another go in the summer. I recall having the luxury of only needing 50 per cent for an A* mark in a Physics paper, simply because I’d done most of the work in January. And these are the grades that get you in to university and linger on your CV for a while.

So this week – after the debacle of this year’s results – the Education Secretary has announced plans for an English Baccalaureate system (or EBaccs, as I fear they may be dubbed). “Today marks the next stage in radical exam reform to equip children for the 21st Century”, said Mr Gove. Initially just for Enlgish, maths and science, today’s GCSEs in those subjects will be replaced by one, big exam at the end of the year set by a singular external board. Sounds familiar, Sir?

Indeed the irony of the changes is that they do sound a bit like that old history teacher’s groaning. The changes might not be the most imaginative, but they are addressing the exact problems with the current system. While much will depend on how the exam specifications are drawn up and whether the robust nature of the proposal will actually survive, the reception amongst academics and teachers has been largely positive thus far.

It is a shame, however, not to see languages included in the ‘core’ subjects’ package. Given the emphasis Gove places on its international importance, surely an improvement in linguistic standards can only further his cause?

It is only right and proper to quote Blair as I conclude – ”Education, education, education” really is the commanding pillar of the strength and success of our country. On a crude economic level it is vital that we keep up with the growing demands placed on students across the globe, as labour markets become more flexible and the UK recognises its comparative advantages. But on a more profound level, it is the soundness of our education system that brings about a cohesive and upright society of moral fibre. I look forward to these long-due changes. And of course I’m in favour – I’ve already got my GCSEs!