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  • Published in Education

Michael Gove’s replacement for GCSEs is an all-out attack on working class kids, argues Adam Tomes

Michael Gove has finally announced his sweeping reforms of the current GCSE system. By 2017, GCSEs will have been replaced by EBaccs. As ever Gove, in an attempt to grab the headlines and promote his elitist ideology, is willing to cast working and middle class kids into the educational abyss. The Ebaccs will be based on six core subjects, Maths, Science, English, Geography, History and a foreign language. Schools will then be measured on their performance in these subjects, so effectively on the extent to which they can satisfy the right-wing prejudices of Michael Gove.

Gove’s changes to GCSEs and A levels are not necessary. The exams might not be perfect, but they work and are still the best predictors of university performance. Furthermore, he has offered no joined-up thinking about the implications for higher education, as the numbers who pass the new qualification are bound to be lower than the current numbers who can go on to university. This expensive reform fails to tackle the much more serious problems of teacher shortages in key subjects like maths, the limited student take up of foreign languages, issues with literacy and numeracy in primary education, a lack of access to sports, music and drama and a demoralised teaching profession on the verge of mass strikes. The UK already spends far greater sums than other countries assessing our students and this will only grow with the creation of Gove levels.

Gove’s golden era of education

The reforms themselves are based on an imagined golden era of education when there were no end-of-module tests or coursework, and students’ chances of success depended on their ability to cope with a three-hour exam at the end of the course. The EBaccs are a return to that system, which the addition of a marking system which would set a fixed percentage of candidates to achieve each grade. This means that however students improve their performance, the system ensures that there is a fixed percentage of failures in every year, and a limited percentage who are allowed to excel. Such an open restriction on achievement is surely unique amongst other democracies.

Gove hides behind his favourite phrase – the need to restore academic rigour – which is meant to sound unarguable but really means turning higher education back into the preserve of the elite. The whole focus is on the top 10% of children and there is little or no consideration of the vast bulk of the student population, in particular those from disadvantaged groups or with additional learning needs who will struggle to access the curriculum. The truth which Gove never mentions is that poverty is the key arbiter of educational success, and his reforms will make it even harder for poor kids to buck the trend.

He probably knows this. The aim is surely for strugglers to be de-motivated and opt for an early exit into the job market. This raises the question of what qualifications these kids will leave school with. The answer is, if you don’t achieve a grade in the new Gove levels, you will be given a record of achievement by your school stating what you have studied. Students will leave with a piece of paper with the same value as a Conservative party pre-election pledge, which will impel them into a world of unemployment or precarity. Even the political right wing is in shock. After all, education is a preparation for the workplace and Gove levels are clearly not that. How many jobs give their employees a two-year task and only assess their performance on deadline day?

Fear of an educated workforce

The effect of Gove's new system is to narrow our children's education and make it less relevant to the world they live in and need to understand. There is no space for art, drama or music, despite these being crucial for wider cultural experience and learning. There is no space for physical education, even after all the talk of the legacy of the Olympics. This narrow curriculum excludes subjects which some students really enjoy and that allows students to grow and succeed. There is no space for learning in the widest sense, perhaps because the establishment fear an educated workforce who can critically evaluate the political and economic system in which they live.

As in the English GCSE grading controversy, Gove has shown his total insensitivity to the plight of young people. He has continually attacked and attempted to destroy the standing of GCSEs. Yet the first Ebaccs will not be sat until 2017. Until then, students will be sitting GCSEs, a qualification that the Education Secretary has been telling the world is worthless. He has effectively thrown the next five years’ worth of students' motivation, achievements and prospects overboard to serve his own political goals.

Time to stand up for education

Gove’s reforms are not based on consultation with educationalists, but on his own ideological preferences. He wants the subjects he values taught in the way he wants. It is not about ‘rigour’ or liberating teachers or education. If it was, he would model his reforms on the many successful education systems abroad. He says he wants to emulate Singapore, yet their examination system was a consensus of students, teachers, parents and industry. Finland is the top achieving educational system, but it values teachers and students and proves this by the consensus needed to establish and reform the system as well as the investment poured into it. Gove Levels were designed by a small coterie of right-wing ideologues and are being imposed on the rest of us with no consultation.

How can any politician carry out a root and branch reform of education without consulting those affected and with expertise: parents, teachers and students? The arrogance is as spectacular as the incompetence and lack of logic is breathtaking. The time has come for everyone who values education and young people in our society to stand up. The time has come to argue for the type of education we want, not the type of education which shines the light on the few elite students by throwing the vast majority away.

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