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Labour must reject Gove's approach in its entirety

False claims for the success of academies have been swallowed whole by an uncritical media.

Ed Miliband’s Labour conference speech was well judged in setting out a policy direction rather than committing to specifics so far in advance of the general election. This is especially true in the case of education, where it is proving so difficult for Labour to recognise the mistakes of the Blair-Adonis era and therefore to effectively challenge the direction of the Gove reforms that are based on them. Ed paid a fully justified tribute to his own comprehensive school upbringing but introduced confusion by drawing a distinction between the curriculum needs of ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ pupils. That such a distinction has no sound basis is strongly hinted at by the arbitrary assertion that there are equal numbers of such pupils. The presumption is that the academic half should be taught ‘academically’ and the other half with a vocational emphasis that will result in a diploma qualification of equal status. The stage at which such segregation should begin appears to be 14, with the assumption that the academic stream will be expected to progress to university and the vocational stream will not. There are many contradictions and questions that arise from this model.

Can English university degrees now be described in general as academic? For example, in South Cumbria and North Lancashire the NHS nursing and midwifery requirements are serviced by the University of Cumbria and the University of Central Lancashire. Are these nursing and midwifery degrees academic or vocational? Both universities have entry requirements that stipulate C grades at GCSE in English and maths together with a combination of academic A Levels, however both universities also state that in ‘certain circumstances’ they admit students without A Levels or even GCSE Cs in English and maths. Labour’s proposals might suggest that graduate entry to the nursing and midwifery professions should be confined to the academic streams in schools. Should such careers be denied to half the school population at the age of 14? If not, are we happy if ‘midwifery-led’ rather than ‘consultant-led’ hospital maternity units are managed by staff from the bottom half of the ability range? If there is confusion about the purpose of university education then it is unsurprising that a curriculum policy for the 14-18 age group based on dividing pupils into ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ streams is also confused. Many similar examples in other career pathways exhibit the same confusion.

What does ‘non-academic’ mean? Is it to be based on the IQ type Cognitive Ability Tests widely used by the frequently praised Harris, Mossbourne and other Academies for regulating their admissions? These tests are certainly very good predictors of performance in academic subjects at GCSE and A Level and their use gives such Academies control over their pupil admission profile crucially denied to their much denigrated LA school predecessors. If such tests are not used then how are the criteria for dividing pupils at 14 to be decided? How is ‘academic’ to be defined and measured? The results of the cognitive ability tests used by Academies to regulate their admissions display the classic bell curve continuous ‘normal distribution’. There is no distinctive level of performance in such tests, or any other tests, that could validly divide a population into academic and non-academic streams at any prescribed level let alone the 50th percentile (proportion as a percentage) as Ed Miliband appears to be suggesting. All you can say is that pupils with lower scores generally find academic studies more difficult. But does this mean they shouldn’t be allowed access to them? Pupils are ‘turned off’ learning by inappropriate and undifferentiated teaching methods, not by the subjects themselves. What about technology and the arts? Are these subjects academic or vocational? Are we to assume that our most academically able pupils should be directed away from cooking, dance, drama and art, or that less academic pupils don’t need to study and understand history, geography, literature, science and a foreign language? How should a ‘Jamie Oliver’ be directed at 14 years old?

Labour appears to be proposing the 50th percentile (50:50) as the academic/non-academic dividing line. The 11 plus exam (an IQ type test) still used for ‘academic’ grammar school selection in parts of England sets this benchmark at about the 75th percentile, selecting approximately the top 25 percent (depending on the number of grammar school places available). Which defines academic, 50th or 75th percentile? The answer must be neither of them. There is no need to divide pupils into separate streams either within schools or between schools and everywhere this is done real damage results to the education and life chances of a significant proportion of children. This is more than just a hopeful assertion on the part of the stereotypical  left-inclined educator. The only firm conclusion to be drawn from the huge body of research in this area is that all pupils benefit when taught in groups that contain some pupils that are more able than themselves. That streaming (dividing children between different schools, or different groups for all subjects within a single school) is not necessary for educational excellence is demonstrated in countries like Finland and many others which, unlike post Education Reform Act England, are near the top of the PISA international league table of school performance. International comparisons also suggest, again contrary to popular opinion, that fancy and expensive school uniforms aren’t necessary either.  Subject based ability setting is a different matter. Ed Milliband's comprehensive, like most such schools at that time, had both mixed ability and setted classes and he is right to point out that not only did this not obstruct his rise to be Leader of the Opposition and prospective Prime Minister, it was a positive advantage. Why then is he now proposing something quite different?

The reason is partly explained by the additional layers of significance forced upon the C grade at GCSE by the need for a simple performance indicator to drive the league tables resulting from the 1988 Education Reform Act. Grade C or above is now defined as a ‘good’ GCSE implying that grades below C must be bad GCSEs. Although league tables have made this true for schools it cannot be true for pupils, because the individual pupil cognitive ability that underpins academic success is continuously variable in the national population. Therefore if all pupils make comparable gains in knowledge and understanding in relation to their cognitive ability, then GCSE grades should vary in the same way, in accordance with this fundamental underlying variation. All the grades A*-G that reflect such gains must therefore be good grades representing significant gains for individual pupils. Making the C grade an especially high stakes target results in some sections of the ability range being required to make (or appear to make) more progress than others. The consequent distortion in provision significantly lowers overall standards and is a partial explanation for the English system's slide down the international league table. The main current function of the C grade is to drive the competitive league tables of the English Education System rather than to facilitate any rational progression to careers or post-16 education. This is the real reason why school heads are so upset at this year’s GCSE English results. The underlying issue is the grade inflation produced by the league table system and the parallel competition between the privatised exam boards to feed it.  To appreciate the extent of this requires knowledge of the history of the GCSE C grade in the English education system.

This needs a consideration of the percentile attainment of the ability distribution that historically each grade was meant to reflect. The GCSE, introduced in 1988, is the direct descendant of GCE. Before comprehensive reorganisation the 11+  test usually sought to select around the top 25 per cent of the cognitive ability range in each Local Authority area. In general, grammar school pupils were expected to ‘pass’ at GCE at age 16, with a pass defined as grades A-C. The C grade at GCE was therefore aimed at the top 25 per cent of the pupil population (75th percentile). However not all grammar school pupils achieved this standard so the proportion of the national population gaining C grades or better through the grammar school system was historically less than 25 per cent. We can estimate it generously at around 20 percent. The new comprehensive schools that began to be created in the late 1960s developed the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE), first introduced in 1965, which ran in parallel with GCE until the two exams were combined into the GCSE in 1988. The parallel CSE grading system was overtly percentile based with Grades 1 – 5 formally defined as follows.


Grade 1           Equivalent to GCE grade C (therefore approximating to the 80th percentile).

Grade 4           The grade which a pupil of average ability (50th percentile) could be expected to achieve on completing a competently taught course of study.

Grade 5           The lower limit of Grade 5, and therefore of the CSE system, was intended to be at the 40th percentile. This meant that the CSE was aimed only at the top 60 percent of the comprehensive school population. Pupils below this level were deemed to be ‘non-exam’.


Grades 2 and 3 were determined on the basis of dividing the total population with marks between the Grade 1 threshold and the top mark for Grade 4 into two equal size groups. Each grade 2-5 was awarded so as to produce the same numbers of pupils. The GCE and CSE exam grades were therefore designed to approximately reflect the percentiles shown in the table.

































As soon as the first GCSE results came out teachers realised that the value of the C grade had in fact been devalued. The consensus amongst teachers was that the new C grade at GCSE was about equivalent to a D at GCE (Grade 2 at CSE), and that Grade G had been extended well below the 40th percentile. No-one worried too much about this at the time. With hindsight these were modest changes in the light of the truly epic scale of grade inflation that school league tables were later to create.

The passing of the 1988 Education Act brought about the next major change in the assumptions of grading. Schools soon had to compete in league tables based on the proportion of pupils in the school achieving 5+A-C passes at GCSE. Following the election of New Labour in 1997 any school that failed to achieve 25 percent 5+A-C (the first floor target) was deemed to be failing by definition, regardless of the average cognitive ability of its intake. Michael Gove has since raised this to 40 percent. This disregards the fact of the direct link between pupil cognitive ability and exam performance and so places responsibility for obtaining C+ GCSE results squarely with the school regardless of the average intake ability. The resulting vilification of comprehensive schools admitting higher proportions of less able pupils (frequently much higher) has persisted ever since. All the sound statistical protests are usually dismissed as ‘making excuses for failure’. This mathematical nonsense continues to inflict great and lasting damage on the education system. It has been exploited by the Academies allowed to control their intakes with IQ tests to make wholly false and dishonest performance comparisons with their predecessor schools. This deceit initiated by New Labour to justify its Academies programme has been exploited by the Conservative-led coalition as the justification for its further pseudo-privatisation of the school system. False claims for the success of Academies have been swallowed whole by an uncritical media that never mentions the crucial role of IQ type tests in the admission systems of the most successful Academies. This is why Labour still finds it so difficult to assemble a coherent education policy to oppose that of Michael Gove.   

Later, as a high proportion of the schools with more than their fair share of less able pupils still failed to meet the floor target the blame increasingly became shifted towards ‘irresponsible parents’ who were condemned for locking their children into their own class based underachievement through dysfunctional parenting. By then, high %5+A-C = good school, low %5+A-C = bad school had become the established assumption, helping to feed parallel rampant house price inflation and social polarisation. School league tables have contributed strongly to this social disaster.

With the link between pupil cognitive ability and exam performance still being denied, the privatised Exam Boards competed for ‘business’ from heads of fear-stricken sub-floor target schools threatened with closure. With all schools having to fight for bright pupils, grade inflation soon became so rampant that an A* grade became necessary to divide up the increasing proportion of pupils being graded at A.

The C grade initially declined in value to become the grade an average pupil should be expected to attain in a good school. This reduced the C grade threshold to the average, 50th percentile (CSE Grade 4) rather than the 80th percentile (CSE Grade 1) required for university matriculation in the GCE system. Before long average was dropped and the C grade became the expected grade for all secondary pupils. This reduced its value to well below the 40th percentile (CSE grade 5). Throughout this period the C grade retained its function as the threshold necessary to progress to A Levels and for university entrance, so infecting the whole of the post-16 education system with grossly lowered standards. Any sufficiently experienced A Level teacher or university admissions tutor will affirm the truth of this decline. New Labour remained in constant denial and spun the explosion in higher GCSE (and vocational equivalent) grades as evidence of the success of its education policies, especially the Academies programme, again uncritically accepted by the liberal media including the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent. It finally fell to the right-wing media and Michael Gove to see through this and to accept and reveal the truth of this massive decline in standards.

It therefore hard to argue with Gove that the GCSE system has become dangerously dysfunctional and it is revealing that he also recognises that this race to the bottom (his words) is attributed to competition between the privatised exam boards. What he fails to acknowledge however is the key role of the same market forces expressed through school league tables in more generally lowering educational standards. He rightly rejects the shallow and undemanding 100 percent pass rate, four-GCSE-equivalent GNVQs and their successors devised by Tony Blair and his inner circle of advisors as of little worth academically or vocationally. Their serious limitations were confirmed in the strongest terms by the independent Wolf Report. Gove also refuses to admit the central role of Academies as the vanguard in leading the use of easy vocational alternative subjects as a key strategy (alongside IQ driven admissions) for rapidly climbing the league tables. They were helped to get away with this because as ‘independent schools’ their degraded curriculum was hidden from public exposure by their not being subject to the Freedom of Information Act, a protection against educational researchers maintained by New Labour long after it became clearly indefensible. Further support for the illusion of free market driven school improvement was provided through OfSTED. A special OfSTED team was created for the inspection of the first cohort of Academies with only inspectors trained and trusted to understand the 'unique' features of these schools allowed to inspect them. The same approach still operates for religious schools.

As a result of league tables and ‘zero tolerance of failure’ almost all schools except those with high ability intakes have been compelled to adopt easy vocational subjects to a degree necessitated by their intake ability profile. When GCSE English and maths were included for league table success the privatised exam boards reacted by changing their exams and grade boundaries to enable schools to raise their pass rates in English and maths to secure league table safety. The 2012 GCSE English results furore is a symptom of the belated recognition of this issue.

In 2010 the ‘most improved school ever’ (according to its website) was a Birmingham comprehensive, much celebrated in the media for this achievement. This school followed the example set by Academies in using the vocational curriculum to ensure that all its pupils obtained at least five A*-Cs (100 percent) and crucially in perfecting methods for teaching English and maths to maximise C grades at the expense of Es, Ds and Bs. This boosted the league table figure to new heights but arguably with consequences for the proportion of pupils going on to study English and maths at A Level. This efficient and well-run school, along with increasing numbers of others emulating its success were therefore already implementing Ed Milliband's proposed curriculum by dissuading pupils from taking any GCSE subjects except English and maths unless they were likely to achieve at least a C, and substituting multiple C grade generating 'vocational' alternatives instead.

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is the title of the 2011 book by Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist at Princeton University and Emeritus Professor of Public Affairs at Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (USA). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. He is not primarily an educationalist and his book makes no direct reference to school age education or curriculum, so what is its relevance to the failures of the English education system? It is because his work is based on his assertion that humans have two discrete modes of thinking that he refers to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is a result of human evolution and to a major extent is written into the human genome. It is the ‘fast thinking’ that is linked in evolutionary terms to our ancient survival in the face of mortal dangers. It is very good at rapidly solving certain kinds of problems essential for survival, but frequently fails spectacularly with the complex problems of modern life that millions of years of evolution have not prepared us for, other than by endowing us with large brains with a highly flexible cerebral cortex. Kahneman describes System 1 as ‘a machine for jumping to conclusions’. I first came across Daniel Kahneman by accident on listening to BBC Radio 4 in June 2012, when he was being interviewed about his new book. He quoted the following puzzle from his book and the programme presenter asked the audience at home to phone in their solutions.

A bat and ball costs £1.10 in total.

The bat costs one pound more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

System 1 thinking provides the almost universal instant answer of 10p, even from well educated people including mathematicians, who should know better. This demonstrates the power of System 1 to trump logic. 10p is incorrect: the answer is 5p. Think about it. It is similar System 1 thinking that has led successive governments to jump to various flawed but popular ‘common sense’ conclusions about education and our school system, and for the  public and the media to be so easily led into the same traps. Everybody who has been to school holds views about schools that are usually as wrong as their confident answers to Kahneman’s bat and ball problem. This includes Michael Gove and more unfortunately up to now Ed Milliband, Ed Balls and Stephen Twigg, from whom clearer thinking is urgently needed. Informed education policies based on evidence rather than popular mythology require the controlled, conscious, slow thinking that Kahneman refers to as System 2. Everybody has a System 1, primed for action. Even those with well developed System 2 abilities frequently fail to use them before their System 1 hijacks the thought process and spits out a System 1 solution. The educational implications of the ‘bat and ball’ problem are profound. System 1, as well as being the instinctive default system, can be reinforced by bad education: teaching and learning specifically designed to encourage such ‘fast thinking’ at the expense of slow, System 2, thinking. For example, we can all respond instantly to, ‘What is two add two?’  This is because familiarity and repetition have burned this response into our genetically inherited and incredibly efficient System 1. The educational theory of behaviourism is based on the mistaken principle that all learning is about extending System 1 through repetition, punishment and reward. Think pigeons in cages. This is a long discarded learning theory that has re-infected our schools because of exam pressures created by the marketisation of the English education system. Teaching to the test and cramming represent behaviourist learning theory in action. The decline in educational standards detected by the PISA  international tests suggests that our children may not just know less because of degraded and limiting curriculum, but their underlying cognitive ability could also have been stunted because of the behaviourist teaching methods required for league table success. Just such a decline in reasoning power has been independently detected and measured by James Flynn and by Michael Shayer (Emeritus Professor of Applied Psychology at King’s College, London). Shayer's work has shown the decline to be alarmingly large.

Learning theorists know from classic investigations of concept formation that, ‘a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level’ (Vygotsky).

Intelligence is not just ‘quick thinking’ armed by memory, but a higher level of cognitive functioning that can be developed in all pupils of all abilities through the right sort of teaching and learning. Labour urgently needs to devise an educational policy that promotes System 2 teaching and learning in our schools as the basis of a coherent educational alternative to the market model.

As far back as 1956, just 11 years after the post-war founding of universal free secondary education by the new Labour government, the Bloom Committee recognised the need for schools to develop the cognitive ability of pupils. From then on, until the 1988 Baker Education Act replaced a school culture informed by theories of learning with a market driven exam target culture, this was a tacitly accepted objective of the state education system. Bloom defined a hierarchy of mental abilities that school learning should develop starting at the lowest level with ‘remembering’ and progressing through ‘simple understanding’, ‘applying’ and ‘analysing’ to the highest levels of ‘evaluating/synthesising/creating’. This approach encouraged the development of problem solving, collaborative, active-learning teaching methods in comprehensive schools throughout the 1980s, a period in which demand for private education steadily fell. These approaches work with pupils of all abilities and can be applied successfully in all subjects; humanities, sciences and perhaps especially technology and the arts. All pupils of all abilities surely have a right to such a rewarding, intelligence-promoting curriculum. The best reason for rejecting vocationally specific education before the age of 16 is that teachers and pupils have much better things to be doing in the limited time available. GNVQ type vocational education generally failed to raise teaching and learning out of the Bloom basement. A further obvious objection is that no child should or needs to be forced into career-specific channels at 14. The New Labour innovation of ‘Specialist Schools’ ridiculously extended this early specialisation right back to the choice of secondary school at age 11.

Unless there is an early general election, from 2015 the GCSE will be no more. This should be welcomed by Labour as it has become so contaminated by grade inflation as to be unfit for purpose. However we need an intelligence promoting replacement. This should require all schools to provide a broad and balanced curriculum to 16 with access to academic, technological and creative subjects for all pupils of all abilities. The most effective assessment would include practical tasks and teacher assessed coursework as well as final exams. Such an approach requires absolute professional integrity on the part of teachers, which is impossible in a system corrupted by league table competition between schools and individual performance related pay for teachers based on their exam results. Such teacher assessment is normal in the successful, non-competitive school systems of other countries.

The new exam grades will need to recognise that ability is continuously variable over a large range. The aim should be to lift this continuous distribution in its entirety, rather than engage in futile attempts to narrow it, except for specific skills essential for functioning in the modern world. The current A*-G system has eight grades so at least as many will be needed in the new system. Why not build on the work of the early National Curriculum Council and grade 16+ exams on the basis of National Curriculum Levels as originally proposed? A range of eight Levels from L3 to L10 could replace the GCSE grades G – A*. Each Level could be defined in terms of the Bloom taxonomy of cognitive challenge and be common across all subjects. This would create a rigorous, coherent equivalence in status between subjects in academic, technological and creative studies. Just such a system was devised in Leicestershire in the late 1980s as a Mode 3 (teacher designed and assessed) GCSE programme in multiple subjects that rapidly became extremely successful and popular with schools. It was killed off by the 1988 Education Reform Act.

Grade hurdles would still be needed for progression to post-16 apprenticeships, high quality vocational courses and A levels, but these could then be chosen with reference to the actual Bloom Levels required, rather than the present crude GCSE C success/failure system. For example, in the reformed system Level 7 (C) might be appropriate for entry to A level courses and university matriculation and would require the demonstration to some degree of what Piaget called formal thinking. For example, in maths this would require an ability to work with algebra; for computer studies some programming would be needed: subject specialists across the curriculum being readily able to interpret such differentiation within their own areas of expertise. Level 5 (E) might be suitable for entry onto a wide range of other career ladders while Level 3 (G) would validate knowledge at the most basic, but nevertheless worthwhile level compared to the absence of it. It is a statistical fact of human variation that children at the 80th cognitive ability percentile at age 11 may well be functioning at higher Bloom levels than the 20th percentile at age 16. The task of the education system should be to raise educational outcomes for all pupils, so producing a better educated and more intelligent population at every level.

What is wrong with having well educated plumbers, actors, motor mechanics, shop assistants, footballers, tennis players, care workers etc. as well as more broadly educated teachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers? Both requirements are achievable within a comprehensive school system provided all schools enjoy genuinely all-ability intakes of children. This is not a futuristic socialist fantasy. Something like it is in its infancy in Hackney, the first LA area where most of the secondary schools, LA comprehensives, independent academies and religious schools co-operate in a system that to a significant extent is proving successful in at least partially combating the pernicious polarising and degrading effects of school league tables. These schools also appear to be accepting the role of the LA to administer the agreed uniform admissions process and to co-ordinate co-operation between schools in the interests of raising standards across the borough.

It is hard to see how such a favourable outcome can result from thousands of independent secondary schools centrally regulated by the Department for Education, all competing with each other. This is a recipe for an unworkable education system that Labour needs to recognise as such and reject in its entirety. Current Labour proposals fail to recognise the facts, rather than the myths, that underpin the current system and so are a very long way from designing an effective and appropriate alternative.

Roger Titcombe is a retired headteacher, educational researcher and writer.