Gove, Edexcel, Baccelaureate: the eternal golden braid

This is kind of a part two post to part one, which dealt with “The Black Paper” and the educational policy of the UK right. I concluded by suggesting that there were two threads in this particular braid, one nostalgic, the other business-like and that Gove exemplified the worst of both – this week’s news proves it. I seem to have written a disturbing amount about Gove: do see also my top 10 GoveLOLs.

Let’s begin with a GoveLOL that continues the woven theme – and also tends towards the biblical. In early 2010, the House of Commons was faced with a plague of moths that had taken to hiding in the air vents of a particular corridor. Nothing was ever proven, but suspicious fingers were pointed at the second-hand Morrocan carpet that Mr Gove had supposedly installed in his office at the time. ¬†Wonderfully, Gove gave a quote (itself a textbook example of a non-denial denial) to the august Surrey Herald and News.

“Sadly I have never been to Morocco and never bought a carpet from there. I think there must have been a mix up with someone with more time to go on their travels.”

(maybe he bought it from the market – from that bloke that sells carpets)

Happily for us all, Gove managed to get to Marrakesh in 2012, along with one Henry Dimbleby – whom he later (and, I’m sure, coincidentally) asked to review the provision of school dinners! I’m sure he was thanking his lucky carpet for that.

Anyway…

Gove has been in the news over the last few days regarding the replacement of the GCSE system. As always, there is much more to the story than the headlines suggest – but the fuller tale does exemplify the kind of confusion inherent in right wing education policy.

First of all, there has been an English Baccalaureate since 2010. It was initially invented as another way of measuring schools against each other – rather than the old “pupils with 5+ GCSEs at grade A-C” it ensured students had those grades in the “right” subjects (these have moved slightly over time). ¬†It was never popular with teachers, parents or employers, and it was never a qualification in its own right – though exam boards have always been keen to promote the concept.

There are two groups of “right” subjects now, which are already covered by the existing “bacc”. From 2015, there will be a single certificate covering English Language and Literature, Pure and Applied Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, Physics. From 2016, a similar exam will include Languages, Geography and History.

So the news this week is actually that:

  • the English Bacc would become the certificate, rather than a notional meta-certificate awarded to someone who has a bunch of other certificates.
  • It would be offered by a single exam board only – which would replace an (open) national curriculum with a (monopoly) national exam. This will be a huge earner for whichever board get the gig – not only a huge captive markets for exams, but a staggering monopoly over textbooks, resources, teacher’s guides etc.

The second is quite interesting in that Gove met representatives from educational publishing behemoth Pearson (who own the Edexcel exam board) in July, shortly before the English Bacc initial announcement.

So far, so business-friendly, you may think.

But the other aspects give the policy a foot in the imaginary 50s utopia of Daily Mail Island. Gove clearly has a moth in his carpet about “coursework” – labouring under the misapprehension that because more people pass qualifications assessed by coursework it must be “easier”. It is not “easier” – it is a more efficient way of testing subject knowledge and expertise. Rather than a traditional exam, which is a great way of testing memory under stress.

So aligned to the employer-friendly pragmatics of a common and rigorous single qualification, you get the romanticism of a proper old-fashioned exam.

Science, geography and languages are partially exempt from this to allow for lab-work, field work and oral (hopefully this will also include experimental design in the first two instances). But it worries me (as an English grad myself) that Bacc holders will have no experience of sustained assessed essay writing until A-level.

A further nostalgia issue is that creative subjects and technological subjects will be outside of the bacc. Creative and technical work are two of our major export industries.

For a man who thinks that ministerial responsibilities around confidentiality apply to others not to himself, holding these two contradictory ideologies simultaneously cannot be a challenge. But to the rest of us, it just looks like a mess.

Much like his second-hand Moroccan carpet.

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