Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Answer to exam problem won't be found in history

THERE are few things in politics more dangerous than a politician with principles.
As far as one can tell from down here in the street, this is not a problem very many of our present rulers are afflicted with.
Unfortunately, this means the few who do care passionately about a particular job tend to be given it and left to get on with it.
Hence the troubles of the National Health Service, which was not seriously broken until Andrew Lansley was given free rein to “fix” it.
And the fear and trembling which the mere name “Michael Gove” can set off in a whole generation of teachers.
Gove, like Lansley, is a visionary. Unfortunately, his vision appears to be distorted by tinted spectacles.
Not of the rose-tinted variety, but of the kind that creates the appearance of a “Golden Age” that never really existed.
The latest evidence of this is Gove’s newly exposed plan to scrap GCSE exams in favour of a return to something more like the old two-tier system of O-levels and CSEs.
Now, there is an element of truth in the analysis that led him to this great leap backwards.
There can be little doubt that grade inflation has occurred steadily since GCSEs were introduced in 1986 by a previous Tory minister, Kenneth Baker.
Year after year, the number of pupils gaining top grades has increased. The bunching at the top has led to the creation of more and more “star” grades and less and less distinction between the truly outstanding and the merely competent.
It has become harder and harder to believe the fiction that “improving” results were evidence of improving student performance.
Faith in the system has been steadily eroded. And it is not just “business leaders” – whose opinion on the matter is always reported as if it were the only one that counted – who object.
So yes, there is a problem.
The answer, however, is not to roll the clock back to 1983 (the year Gove sat his O-levels at Robert Gordon’s College, a 260-year-old private school in Aberdeen).
That, like so much in Gove’s thinking, is simply the politics of nostalgia.
One suspects it would really make him happy to have Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Culture Club back on Top of the Pops, Flashdance at the pictures and John Inman camping it up on Are You Being Served?
For good measure, why not restore Britain’s steel, mining and shipbuilding industries, New Romantic hairstyles and jackets with big shoulders?
All these things were current around the time the now “dumbed-down” GCSEs were being devised by another Tory visionary, Baker’s predecessor Sir Keith Joseph. A man whose own experience of education – like Gove’s, Baker’s and most of the present government – came from private schools then Oxford.
While we’re at it, why not wind back to the real heyday of the grammar schools the heart of the Conservative Party hankers for? To the days when teachers were armed with bamboo canes with which to assault pupils with impunity.
Let’s roll back agri-business to put workers back in the fields of Suffolk. And let’s have tied cottages to house them in.
Let’s turn back not to Gove’s grammar-school days but to mine, 10 years earlier.
Of course, mine was different – it was a state school. But it was supposed to be quite a good one at the time.
Few of the teachers I had for my O-levels would be able to cope in today’s schools. Certainly not the ones who turned their gowned backs on their classes and addressed their monotonous talk to the blackboards on which they scrawled the notes we were supposed to copy into our books.
I know that not every modern comprehensive is as good as Farlingaye High School, which my daughter is fortunate enough to attend. I also know that every time I visit the school I’m filled with envy.
Envy of the opportunities the students there enjoy for music, drama and sport at far high levels than were ever open to me. Envy of maths lessons that make the subject so much wider, deeper and more fun than the number-crunching I was once quite good at.
Envy, at heart, of the facilities and the teaching – though, to be fair to the 1970s, I was taught well at sixth form after moving across town from old grammar to new comprehensive.
There is a mania among modern Conservatives for describing things as “broken” – especially things, like Britain, which can’t actually break.
Britain’s schools aren’t “broken”, unless you count buildings which are no longer being properly maintained.
Education doesn’t need yet more “fixing”.
Mostly what teachers need is to be left to get on with the job.
Most of the problems stem from the obsession with “choice” and results-based league tables.
That is what has caused grade inflation and dumbing-down.
That is what has made heads more concerned about exam results than pupils’ all-round well-being.
That is what Gove inherited from New Labour. And what he appears to want more of, not less.

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