by John Yandell
I want to start with the words of someone not obviously connected with the recent (and ongoing) furore over GCSE grades. G.S. Gordon was the second Professor of English at Oxford. This is him writing to his wife in 1910 – it’s the last paragraph of a longer letter:
I hope the new maid is as illiterate and competent as ever. It would be a sad day if she took to reading at her age! That’s how Socialists are made.
(Gordon 1943: 44)
There is a direct link between Professor Gordon’s views and those of Michael Gove. Both are fully paid-up subscribers to the rationing school of education. This is predicated on the idea that, as another right-wing ideologue had it, ‘More will mean worse’ (that was Kingsley Amis, bemoaning the expansion of higher education in 1960). From this perspective, opening up education to the masses means a dilution of standards, so the masses must be kept out. Gove and Ofqual have now decided that fewer will mean better.
The right are fond of using the lexis of economics to advance their policies in education. A-levels are the ‘gold standard.’ (No, they aren’t. The gold standard was abandoned in the 1920s, a moment that upset Churchill and a bunch of other British imperialists.) What we must now guard against is ‘grade inflation’. There is precious little evidence that this is a real phenomenon; what is undeniably true is that more students have been getting higher grades. There are two pretty obvious reasons for this:
(i) more students are working harder, getting better grades because they realise that in the current economic climate this might possibly lead to (better) jobs.
(ii) schools, under immense pressure from league tables and Ofsted, have become more and more adept at meeting the production targets (intervention groups and so on).
Suddenly, this success is a bad thing. It doesn’t sit well with the new austerity programme. So Gove and his mates at Ofqual abandon two decades of criterion referencing and go back to the bad old days of norm referencing. You don’t get a grade C because your work meets the specified criteria for a grade C; you get a C if you are in the top x per cent of a cohort.
And somehow this new system is meant to be more rigorous. This word rigour has become a stick to beat the GCSEs with.
Now, there might have been problems with GCSEs, but we shouldn’t forget that they were the first set of public exams in this country that were pretty much a universal qualification. Having one exam for everyone (instead of the separate O-levels and CSEs that they replaced) was a progressive move, even if it was always fraught with contradictions. And there has been a fairly consistent strand in the development of the GSCEs that has been about making knowledge more accessible. This isn’t the same thing at all as debasing standards. But it looks that way if what you’re about is maintaining exclusivity.
What Gove means by rigour is something else entirely:
It was an automatic assumption of my predecessors in Cabinet office that the education they had enjoyed, the culture they had benefitted from, the literature they had read, the history they had grown up learning, were all worth knowing. They thought that the case was almost so self-evident it scarcely needed to be made. To know who Pericles was, why he was important, why acquaintance with his actions, thoughts and words mattered, didn’t need to be explained or justified. It was the mark of an educated person. And to aspire to be educated, and be thought of as educated, was the noblest of ambitions.
Gove doesn’t just want to ration access to education; he wants to keep it just as it used to be, in the good old days (that never were). The schooling that was good enough for Gladstone is good enough for Gove and good enough for the youth of today.
There is a mad circularity about all of this, a circularity that is a denial of history, of progress, of development. No single sphere of human knowledge or activity is the same now as it was when Gladstone went to school. Knowing about Pericles is good and fine – but shouldn’t the youth of today also know something about particle physics? Even literature has moved on a bit – different texts have been produced, some of them involving all sorts of fancy new technologies, like moving pictures and so forth.
What this means is that the concept of rigour really isn’t terribly straightforward. Knowledge is differently constructed now, in the world, and it is entirely appropriate that schooling should reflect these differences.
This may seem a long way away from our current concerns about GCSE grades, but what Gove is now proposing, on the back of the grading scandal, is the abolition of GCSEs and the imposition of something much more like O-levels (even if the Liberals won’t let him call them that).
This is Gove taking us back to a very Gladstonian future. The argument is about assessment, for sure, but it is also about the content of education. Look at the new Teachers’ Standards: central control of pedagogy (synthetic phonics as mandatory), curriculum (all teachers responsible for promoting ‘the correct use of Standard English’) and a particularly reactionary set of values (British values, the rule of law, and so forth).
Of course, Gove’s position is more contradictory than this. He wants to ration education through capping the number of students who can achieve particular grades. But simultaneously he raises the ‘floor standard’ – demanding that in all secondary schools at least 40 per cent of students attain 5 GCSEs at A*- C. These two policy elements are completely incompatible. And they lead the way to more forced academy conversions.
This word rigour has become a stick to beat teachers with.
Externally set and marked exams are a very blunt instrument. But, of course, if the function of the assessment is to act as a sorting mechanism, then exams do the job perfectly well. If the aim is to arrive at a certain quota of sheep, or A-level students, then why waste time on anything more nuanced?
What happened in the summer was that students who had been predicted a grade C – students whose teachers were pretty confident that they should get a grade C – ended up with grade Ds. It is a stark case of grade deflation. But I want to focus attention on this business of prediction.
In most spheres of life, when we talk about predictions, we measure these against actual events. So the weather forecast is a prediction about what the weather will be like, at a particular time and in a particular place. The forecast uses evidence, of various kinds and varying degrees of sophistication. The question of the accuracy of a weather forecast is easily determined: we can test it out by what actually happens. Did it rain today?
Likewise predictions about horse-racing are testable against the race itself. If I give you a tip for the 4.30 at Newbury, you are entitled to judge the usefulness and the accuracy of the tip, and probably of me as a tipster, by what actually happens in the 4.30 at Newbury.
Now, the commonsense approach to predicted GCSE grades would be the same as outlined above. An English teacher predicts a grade C for her student; he gets a grade D; the prediction was wrong, demonstrably, because the prediction did not match what actually happened in the exam.
But this is nonsense. A GCSE exam is not like the 4.30 at Newbury. The claims that a GCSE result purports to make about a student are not limited to what happened in an exam hall on a particular afternoon in June: they are claims about what that student knows and can do, in relation to a range of texts and practices that have been gathered together under the heading of ‘English’.
In fact – in the real world where people talk, read and write a variety of different texts for different audiences and purposes – that GCSE student’s English teacher is in the best position to say what that student knows and can do. In this situation, then, the prediction shouldn’t really be construed as a prediction at all: it is a statement based on detailed, in-depth professional knowledge, from someone who has been able to build up a picture of that student’s learning and development over time. The teacher has a mass of evidence on which to base this professional judgement – evidence much more robust because it is more plentiful and also because it is much more diverse than the evidence that can be provided by a single exam.
Now all of the above is true, I think, even in a situation where what the student does in the exam is subjected to fair, transparent, criterion-referenced assessment procedures. What about in a situation where the grade boundaries are manipulated to satisfy a higher power’s arbitrary judgements about how many students should be awarded a particular grade?
And, let’s be clear, that is precisely what happened this summer. That’s what Ofqual’s report tells us. They decided that the proportion of students who were awarded grade C or above should be adjusted downwards because, among other reasons, there were more private school students entered for alternative qualifications (the iGCSE, say), and so they made the assumption that the calibre of the cohort entered for the GCSE would be poorer than in the previous year. And guess what? As the TES revealed (28 September), the students who have been hit hardest by the shift in the grade boundaries have been working class and minority ethnic students. What exactly does rigour mean in these circumstances?
This word rigour has become a weapon in Gove’s class war.
What we need to do is to develop a clear, coherent alternative – an alternative model of curriculum and assessment, in the interests of the mass of students, not a privileged minority. And we need to be prepared to argue for this alternative.
· John Yandell works at London’s Institute for Education
Gordon, G.S. (1943) The Letters of G. S. Gordon, 1902-1942. London: Oxford University Press.
Gove, M (2011) Speech to Cambridge University, 24 November 2011. Available at http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/speeches/a00200373/michael-gove-to-cambridge-university