Round and Round and Back Again

When I was a lot younger and more radical than I am now, a friend in the Labour Party explained to me why she was reluctant to get involved with the more hard-left groups thusly: “The trouble with revolutions is that you go in a great big circle and wind up back where you started”. This certainly seems true of ‘revolutions’ in education.

Michael Gove’s latest pronouncement that universities should set A-level exams certainly seems to be taking us back to the 1970s. Back then, the Oxford and Cambridge Examining Board was run by Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the London Board was run by London University and the Joint Matriculation Board was run by the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham.

His justification is that students are turning up at Universities lacking the skills needed to follow degree courses. The first thing that springs to mind here is that not all A-level students go on to University – some enter the jobs market so it could just as easily be argued that employers should have a say in the content of A-level courses and examinations. Given this government’s enthusiasm for all things private, I am slightly surprised that Gove has not suggested they do. Even apart from this, university academics have work and pressures that did not exist to anything like the same degree (hoho) forty years ago.

Universities and schools, including the private schools which the government consider the be-all and end-all of secondary education, united in their opposition to this latest wheeze, so why is Gove so enthusiastic about it?

It seems in part driven by concerns over dumbing down. Personally, judging by the stuff we put in front of students where I work, I don’t think A-levels have been dumbed down that much (GCSEs are another matter). The reason why students get good grades yet lack basic skills is that they get far too much help with course-work and exam preparation, ‘help’ that in some cases is tantamount to cheating. And the reason for this is senior management pressure to get ever better results so that the school can rise higher in the league tables by which the government sets so much store. Schools have been at it for years, resulting in a race to the bottom as far as standards and integrity are concerned that has been going on ever since league tables were introduced. This is facilitated by having several examining boards that are competing for schools’ business. They have no incentive to root out cheating and every incentive not to see it.

If I were Education Minister, my proposals for improving standards would include the abolition of league tables and replacing the current examining boards with a single national body that would include representatives from universities, FE colleges, schools, employers and the Deparment of Education. I would also put the proposals out for genuine consultation but that is probably too much to ask of the self-regarding bumbling incompetents who are currently misruling us.

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