Michael Gove has denied thousands of young people a chance to continue their education as exam boards responded to his demands for ‘academic rigour‘ argues Adam Tomes

Gove FailGCSE grades have fallen for the first time in the exams’ twenty four year history. The number of A*, A, and A – C grades have gone down, as did the GCE results which were announced last week. Many young people with hopes of going on to pursue an academic path to their careers have seen their hopes dashed – and this on the day that youth unemployment figures are revealed to have shot up. Gove has immediately gone into denial but his fingerprints are all over the crime scene. While he claims that all he has done is insist on ‘rigour’ from the exam boards he has also touted that he wants to completely transform the examination set up.

The exam boards – ever slavish and fearful of losing profits – have taken their cue from him and delivered the results that he wanted to see. ‘Academic rigour‘ was not in sight, but crude forms of statistical adjustment were clearly visible. For example, the marking of the GCSE English paper was undertaken by using assessment criteria that was not in the specification that teachers used to teach the subject. On average this has wiped ten marks from the scores of candidates, and has meant that what was a C grade pass last January’s exam was a D grade in the June one. With most sixth forms or colleges requiring a minimum of five GCSEs at C or above, and this must include English and Maths, students are being branded as failures and discouraged from pursuing academia.

Since coming to office, Michael Gove has banged the drum for ‘academic rigour’, and sneered at ‘phoney qualifications’, but he is utterly hostile to the idea of education for all. He has floated the idea of the elite Russell Group of Universities setting the A level exams and scrapping GCSEs to return to the old, gold standard of O-levels. The current fiasco is part of his vindictive plan to discredit GCSEs and use discriminatory tests that will replicate the class system – training for the workers and real education for the elites. The gold standard has started to return, and on the horizon are the grammar schools and an elitist two-tier system that the Tory right are clamouring for. The Daily Mail and Daily Express cheer him on.

Examining to fail

It is a myth that examinations reveal the true ability of the students who take them. Exam technique, cramming and coaching might get better results but do not show academic worth in themselves. And as funding is increasingly dictated by results, teachers are forced to ‘teach to the test’. Dedicated teachers and anxious students and their parents tend to work together to push the grades up. Exam boards then employ statisticians to represent the results in a way that does not discredit this clearly stupid system.

The stats are adjusted to fit a “bell curve” of achievement. Ideally there should be a few A*s at the top, a few failures at the bottom, and a bulge of intermediate grades in the middle. Thus exam results cover over the major flaws in the system of schools defending their reputation and being successful in the market, and exam boards who are in turn selling their product to the schools. This is what led to the revelation earlier in the year that exam boards often told schools what was coming up in the exam!

Ofqual, the department that runs exams, has issued new guidance which means that the bell curve at GCSE and GCE for this year will be replicated for the next two years. In essence this system which is manipulated by statisticians is a way of ensuring that student achievement fits the profile that the government wants to see for their own political ends, and is never a fair reflection of student ability. What Gove wants to prove is that working class kids are not clever enough to go to university. In his warped schema, those at the top are the wealth creators who respond well to high financial reward whilst the many will need to be cajoled or forced to work by low financial rewards and fear and are only capable of mindless tasks. Education in the broad sense for workers is not only unprofitable it is counter-productive, because workers who are educated will provide the most dangerous critics of an economic system that is falling apart.

Education not examination

This artificial construct clashes with our own perception of the world around us as we recognise that most people have a more or less equal amount of raw ability, and education should be both universal and for life to allow everyone to reach their true potential as an individual and a member of society. Education has been constructed in capitalist societies as an elitist tool to convince the many that they are inadequate and the few that they are truly gifted. Both are victims of a system whose aim is not to educate and set free but rather to divide people to fit the requirements of corporate capitalism.

This latest controversy shows us the viciousness of Gove’s ideology. He sees a few born to rule, lead and earn whilst the many will just exist as wage slaves. However his abandonment of young people to the horrors of free market capitalism and his subjugation of education to the needs of business is increasingly providing us with the opportunity to offer an alternative.

Young people are the future and it is the responsibility of our generation to show that this Coalition Government is intentionally failing them to meet their own ideological goals. Education should be the rallying point for all of us against this Government and the capitalist system as a whole. In the words of Arendt, “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it”, and we all love it too much to leave it to Gove.

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