Peter Wilby says the education secretary, an ex-journalist, knows how to sell reforms for the rightwing press. But it’s no way to run our schools. Here’s an extract from his article in the Guardian…
From 2000, A-levels were split into advanced subsidiary (AS) levels, taken in year 12 and A2s, taken in year 13. Pupils would study four or five subjects at AS and continue with two or three to A2, counting relevant AS “units” they had completed (and been examined on) towards the final award. Being a compromise between traditional A-levels and the baccalaureate programmes of five or six subjects (usually including compulsory maths and a foreign language) followed by most continental pupils, it wasn’t a complete success. But increased numbers chose, at least at AS level, a mix of subjects that crossed traditional boundaries. Even the Russell group of elite universities pronounced the system “broadly fit for purpose”.
Now Gove has thrown it overboard. AS levels will survive, but will not count towards the full A-level which, he insists, must be taken as a “linear” two-year course, examined at its conclusion. At the same time he has introduced new school league tables, giving special credit for pupils who get A-level grades AAB in what he calls “facilitating subjects”, such as chemistry, biology, Latin and maths, which are most likely to get them into elite universities.
So he has not only removed incentives for pupils to follow a broad curriculum but also ruled that traditional combinations of three academic subjects should retain their high status. Subjects such as business, accounting, dance and psychology are firmly discouraged. After Gove’s league tables revealed that, in nearly a quarter of schools, no pupils gained “facilitating” AABs, Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw announced at the weekend a “rapid response” inquiry, adding to the pressure on schools to limit sixth-formers to academic study.
Rigour, coherence, high standards, “proper” exams, an end to learning in “bite-sized chunks”, no more “dumbing down”: those are the headlines. How they will fit with Gove’s stated ambition that all pupils study maths to 18 is anyone’s guess. No doubt the news editor (sorry, secretary of state) is drafting another headline even now.
Gove wants his new A-levels to start as early as 2015, alongside his new Ebacc certificates for 16-year-olds. He also wants to stop exam boards competing to offer schools different syllabuses in the same subjects. Instead, boards will compete for “franchises”, giving them the exclusive right to provide syllabuses and mark papers in each subject, rather as Virgin or First Capital Connect acquire the right to run rail services. While the exams are transformed, therefore, the machinery for setting and marking them must also be overhauled, demanding change on a scale that schools and examining boards will struggle to deliver.
The significance of 2015 is obvious. Other ministers have big projects: George Osborne’s “deficit reduction”, Iain Duncan Smith’s “universal credit”, Jeremy Hunt’s “NHS reform” (inherited from Andrew Lansley) – but all are making uncertain progress. Gove alone can look forward to completing his project by the election, largely because he ignores almost all advice from professionals. A news editor who produces stories with arresting headlines becomes a candidate for editor. Similarly, Gove, if he is minded to run, – he keeps denying interest – will be a plausible candidate for the Tory leadership.