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7 February 2013

Having failed to do his homework, Gove flunked the exam

The Education Secretary's decision to bow to his critics and retain GCSEs is, in a competitive field, the most humiliating retreat yet from a coalition minister.

By George Eaton

It looks like rumours of the death of GCSEs have been greatly exaggerated. In a statement to the Commons at 11:30am today, Michael Gove, the man lionised by Conservative MPs as the coalition’s greatest reformer, will announce that the exams will not, after all, be scrapped in favour of English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs). (N.B. it is these new qualifications, rather than the English Baccalaureate or EBacc, a performance indicator, which measures the percentage of students in a school who achieve grades A*-C in English, maths, two sciences, a foreign language and history or geography at GCSE level that have been abandoned. Confusing, I know.) 

Under the original plan, 14-year-olds were due to begin studying for EBCs in English, maths and science from 2015, with the first exams sat in 2017, to be followed by history, geography and languages in 2018. They will now sit GCSEs instead. In addition, Gove will announce that his plan to introduce a single exam board for each subject has been scrapped after he was warned by civil servants that it could breach EU procurement law (a pity since this is the one measure that really would have halted the “race to the bottom” that Gove has rightly denounced). 

So, why the change of course from the coalition’s Robespierre? Largely because the Liberal Democrats, the education select committee, former Conservative education secretary Kenneth Baker (who told me that he “didn’t know” how Gove was going to introduce his exam reforms) and Ofqual were all, to varying degrees, telling Gove that replacing GCSEs with EBCs was a terrible idea. The select committee, for instance, said last week: “We have not seen any evidence to suggest that the proposed changes will be more successful than GCSEs in addressing underachievement or in narrowing the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged students and their peers.” Its Conservative chair Graham Stuart said: “Ministers want to introduce a new qualification, require a step change in standards, and [want to] alter the way exams are administered, all at the same time. We believe this is trying to do too much, too quickly, and we call on the government to balance the pace of reform with the need to get it right.” Gove’s humiliating retreat (in a competitive field, the most dramatic yet from a coalition minister) suggests that he now agrees, although it is worth asking whether the reforms would be proceeding under a Conservative majority government. 

The Education Secretary will, however, rightly point out that the post-14 exams system is still being radically reshaped. The modular system will be scrapped in favour of one examination sat at the end of the two-year period; extension papers in maths and science will be introduced for the brighest pupils; English and history papers will feature more extended writing and maths and science papers more problem solving; and a new National Curriculum will be introduced, with, the Telegraph reports, “a focus on multiplication tables and mental arithmetic in maths, an emphasis on grammar, punctuation, spelling and pre-20th Century literature in English and a clear chronology of British and world events in history.”

In addition, league tables, which currently rank schools by the proportion of pupils gaining five A* to C grades, will be reformed so that they now list performance in eight subjects, which must include English, maths and three other EBacc disciplines (two sciences, a foreign language and history or geography). 

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By any measure, these are dramatic and ambitious reforms. But the programme of change is so different from Gove’s original blueprint that one cannot consider it as anything but a defeat for the Education Secretary. He originally wanted to replace GCSEs with a new two-tier exam (modelled on O-levels and CSEs) only to be foiled by the Lib Dems. After this retreat, the compromise solution of EBCs was announced; all pupils would, contrary to Gove’s initial wishes, sit the same exams. Now this too has been killed at birth. 

Gove, who arrogantly lectured the education establishment for months on the need to scrap GCSEs, has been taught a lesson in the perils of hasty reform. Having failed to do his homework, the Education Secretary has flunked the exam. 

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