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Poor marks for Gove-levels

The education secretary believes some of our children are chaff and they must be separated from the wheat.

Michael Gove is a genius. Like it or not, he’s succeeded in his plot to abolish GCSEs. Thousands of young people starting secondary school this month will now work towards the EBacc, a new qualification taken in a smaller range of subjects and assessed with a single, final-year exam, wiping out modules and coursework. The aim? Rigour. The result? Division. Geniuses might be effective, but they aren’t always right.

The biggest problem with the EBacc is that it narrows what education should be about. It will be available from 2017 for English, maths and science only, and then expand the next year to include a limited number of languages and humanities. Art, drama and sports don’t get a look-in. Engineering, business and computing are left high and dry. Vocation is nowhere.

In a new and diverse economy, this makes no sense. We need to make the most of all of our talents in all of our kids. We should be supporting our students to follow their passions, not make our future artists and engineers feel second-rate because they were dyslexic, uninspired by biology or bad at French. And some subjects they are excited about will suffer, because schools are bound to focus their resources on the EBacc courses that they’ll be judged on.

Second, there are grave concerns about those students who don’t get entered for these exams. Despite reassurances that “almost all” young people will take the EBacc, there will still be kids who won’t, and we don’t yet know what will happen to them. Presumably we’ll still end up with a two-tier system, but the second tier will just be a lot smaller and less respected than the one created under O-levels. The point of “comprehensive” education is that we’re all in this together – everyone takes GCSEs. It’s not a philosophy the Conservatives seem to understand.

The third concern is that this plan has no buy-in from teachers, unions or students. We cannot ignore the worries about rigour and teaching to fit in with exams – teachers have been saying that for years. But the proposed solution has not been worked out with their knowledge and experience. Instead, one man with one ideology has delivered the EBacc from the top.

Three’s a crowd

Fourth, there is huge concern about national consistency. According to the shadow Welsh secretary, Owen Smith, the leaks about “Gove-levels” came “completely out of the blue” to ministers in Wales and Northern Ireland, even though they will have shared responsibility for the qualification. The lack of dialogue with the devolved nations could force them to consider breaking up the three-nation system. If they do, new EBacc students may find that their qualifications are worth less in the rest of the UK.

Finally, there is a big question about whether there is any evidence for changing the way we assess young people. Replacing coursework and modules with one make-or-break exam doesn’t fit well with a new generation. Employers often value the ability to find and analyse data on the web and from other sources more than a good memory. Similarly, a final exam puts extra stress on students who are already freaking out about what the future holds for them, and the inability to resit will hurt those who can’t afford private tuition even more.

Naturally, Gove wouldn’t flinch at any of this. Increased failure is, after all, part of his plan. Instead of valuing every young person’s contribution, he believes that some of our children are chaff and they must be separated from the wheat. Schools are treated with similar contempt. If they fail to live up to his homogenised standard, they will be classified as failing and turned into academies. Now who would want a thing like that? Like I said, Gove might be wrong, but he’s still a genius.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special