Toby Young: Why would anyone want to keep GCSEs?

Written for his column in the Spectator, Toby Young shares his thoughts on reaction to the proposed GCSE exam reforms and, specifically, takes issue with some of the criticisms that have been raised…

On the principle that you should know your enemy, I’ve spent the last few days trying to work out where the critics of Michael Gove’s GCSE reforms are coming from. Why does anyone object to introducing more rigour into the classroom?

Just to be clear, the last government presided over a period of relentless dumbing down. As GCSE results continually improved, England plummeted in the OECD’s international league tables. In 2000, our 15-year-olds were ranked eighth in the world for maths. By 2009, they’d fallen to 27th.

So there’s no question something needs to be done and, on the face of it, Gove’s reforms are just the ticket: Insisting on just one exam board to stop the race to the bottom; limiting the top grade to the very best instead of handing it out like confetti to a quarter of all pupils; and encouraging teachers to focus on a core of academic subjects by introducing the English Baccalaureate.

It’s this last proposal that has enraged Gove’s critics the most. To refresh your memory, the proposal is that an EBacc will be awarded to children who get a grade C or above in English, maths, a humanities subject, a language and at least two science subjects.

There are three objections to this.

The first is that it’s draconian. Why should schools be forced to teach all children such a narrow range of subjects? What’s wrong with media studies and sociology? When faced with this argument, I gently point out that that no one’s suggesting the EBacc subjects should be mandatory. Schools won’t be put into special measures if the percentage of pupils getting an EBacc falls below a certain threshold. The proposal is simply to include an EBacc column in the school league tables, thereby providing parents with one more piece of information when choosing where to send their children.

Doesn’t matter, say the critics. The fact that Gove has endorsed the EBacc will mean headteachers will prioritise traditional, academic subjects at the expense of trendy, softer ones.

Funnily enough, the people making this argument are often headteachers themselves. What they’re saying, in effect, is that they’re such quislings – so incapable of resisting the iron will of the messianic Secretary of State – that the EBacc might as well be mandatory…

More at: My latest Spectator column


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