Opinion: Gove’s A Level reforms risk pushing many universities out of reach

I am not from the educational establishment and, having seen two daughters through state schools, I have plenty of zeal for major reform.

But that reform does not encompass sending a copy of the King James Bible to every school nor yet banishing the Arts from the nation’s principal academic qualification.

In so many ways Michael Gove uses the same techniques as his colleague Eric Pickles: pander to the right wing press, eschew evidence based thinking, make a splash.

The AS level announcement this week is just one more example. I didn’t have the option of AS levels. I sat O-levels in a nice public school and then spent a couple of years working towards A levels. After that I could worry about University and the Oxbridge entrance exams.

This was not the path for most: normal people applied for University before they got their A level results and some, inevitably, would spend two years in the sixth form and have precious little to show for it.

AS levels were introduced as a building block towards A levels (A2s): they allow progression to be made and to be rewarded, since AS scores count towards the final A2 grades. They allow a broader post-GCSE syllabus and can rescue pupils from subjects which seemed sensible at GCSE but which turned out to be wholly unsuitable in the sixth form.

Gove, however, is clear. AS levels should no longer count towards A2 grades, so that, he says, pupils will develop a “better understanding of their subject”. He adds:

the primary purpose of A-levels is to prepare students for degree-level study. 

The logic escapes me. Nor do I believe that A-levels have the function he describes.

One might hope that the Universities would applaud his claims that the result will be greater rigour. But Cambridge, quite a famous University, has said: 

AS results show an applicant’s most recent academic achievement and demonstrate progress since GCSE in a transparent and objective way. Neither GCSEs, admissions tests nor school predictions come close to matching the effectiveness of AS in enabling the proper and full assessment of applications.

More alarmingly a Cambridge spokesperson has added:

We have to consider whether we should instead have pre-interview testing or testing at the time of the interview. 

So what consultation took place with leading (or any) Universities? What evidence is there that the effective abolition of AS levels will help anyone at all?

The prospect of the reintroduction of University entrance exams may take me back to the long hot summer of 1976. But for most this isn’t turning the clock back. It is simply moving many universities out of reach.

* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association

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32 Comments

  • “AS levels were introduced as a building block towards A levels (A2s): ”

    I’m an eternal pedant I’m afraid. AS levels were introduced as a replacement for the AO level. AOs were a mid-point between the standard of O level and A level. AS levels were the same standard as A level, but half the syllabus, and counted as half an A level and didn’t count towards a full A level. They were introduced to try and broaden the number of subjects studied at A level and counted, for UCCA/PCAS purposes, as half an A level. AS levels were then replaced by the AS levels you mention. Confusing, and annoying, to those of us that sat the original qualifications at a higher standard.

    Whether Gove is right for wanting to return AS levels to their previous standing of around two decades ago is another matter. I suspect it is informed by a nostalgic view of everything always being better in the past than any actual reasoning or evidence.

  • Spot on Chris. The denigration of non-facilitating subjects is also damaging. The Russell Group themselves point out that a) they only recommend these ‘facilitating’ subjects if you aren’t sure what to do at university (iff you are planning on going to university in the first place) and b) they would even then only recommend two rather than Gove’s three. (The parallel EBac stuff is the same.)

  • Helen Tedcastle 30th Jan '13 - 3:00pm

    @ Chris White.

    Your comments are right and once again highlight the absurdity of Gove’s curriculum changes. I think that the introduction of AS levels were very useful in two ways: firstly, they bridged the gap between GCSE and university level study. This is especially important when so many more students of wider and wider ability levels are staying on at college; they give a greater incentive to all to work much harder in Year 12. In my sixth form days, few save the Oxbridge entrants (they took the Oxbridge entrance exams) worked hard in the lower sixth due to the lack of pressure – I was able to take another O Level and a maths qualification that year, in addition to four A levels (and this was in the Govian ‘golden age of rigour’ and only 8% going to university).

    Gove’s obsession with his chosen core of subjects for the EBacc is based on the Russell Group’s list of ‘facilitating subjects’ but not all young people will go on to university and not all will go to the universities in that favoured mission group.

    Indeed, Cambridge University’s admissions spell out clearly which A Levels are needed for each subject – and History and Geography are essential for only a very few subjects, whereas English and maths are essential for a great many more. What is needed is a small core – maths and English – and the rest should be chosen according to aptitude, potential and ability. This has always been the more liberal approach to education.

    Gove’s narrow prescription is taking us back to a time of narrow educational opportunities and Liberal Democrats should be fighting him at every opportunity.

  • Peter Taylor 30th Jan '13 - 3:07pm

    I agree Chris. This reform will make it more difficult for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get into the most competitive universities. Please sign my e-petition if you agree! http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44919

  • Julian Critchley 30th Jan '13 - 3:16pm

    Good article.

    I teach AS and A2 in Gove’s favourite subject, History. I don’t recognise the description of the examinations which he uses in his favourite tabloids.

    AS is a really useful tool in that it allows more students to bridge the gap between GCSE (largely non-essay based) and A2 (largely essay based). It also provides a variety of other advantages, namely :

    – Students get an externally marked, reliable assessment of their progress at the end of Y12, which can act as a spur to greater effort in Y13 if it’s not up to expectation
    – University applications are made using realistic data, rather than wishful thinking or insecure teenage under-confidence
    – The mix of four units allows a greater breadth to study than was available under old A-levels
    – Students know there’s a meaningful exam at the end of Y12, which means they are much more committed to work than I ever was when Y12 was called “lower-sixth”, and was simply a wasted year spent trying to persuade girls to notice me !
    – Crucially, though, the current AS/A2 set-up requires a consistent level of effort over two years, with a gradually increasing degree of complexity and difficulty as the student matures. A single set of exams at the end of Y13 renders the whole of a student’s sixth form experience – and their university chances – a single, one-shot memory game. That was a ridiculous way to prepare young people for higher education or work when I was a boy in the 1980s, and it’s ridiculous now.

    As Steve and Helen have said, the proposals seem to be motivated by nothing more than a desire to please the Daily Mail with claims of a return to their longed for golden past. It certainly isn’t based on evidence.

    While attention is focussed on the economy, it’s worth pointing out that Gove is creating absolute havoc in the education system, and his policies are already having a deleterious effect on our children. And he hasn’t even got to profit-making schools yet. It’s been a real blind spot for the LibDems in that they have let him pursue his scorched earth policies with hardly any restraint at all.

  • Helen Tedcastle 30th Jan '13 - 3:43pm

    @Julian Critchley: “While attention is focussed on the economy, it’s worth pointing out that Gove is creating absolute havoc in the education system, and his policies are already having a deleterious effect on our children. And he hasn’t even got to profit-making schools yet. It’s been a real blind spot for the LibDems in that they have let him pursue his scorched earth policies with hardly any restraint at all.”

    I couldn’t agree more. It has been a blind spot since Gove came in. Either the Liberal Democrat leadership have no confidence in Lib Dem education policy and principle or Gove has a hold over them whereby they dare not contradict him.
    This is a coalition and it would be nice once in a while to hear what our ministers have to say on the curriculum that is different to that right-wing ideologue.

    I think the real weakness of Labour on education has also helped Gove. We have to remember that it was Blair’s Government which introduced the Academy system in the first place. Twigg is also an ultra-Blairite whose weakness politically makes predecessor Andy Burnham sound good.

    The Liberal Democrats used to be the Party of education – what happened?

  • Peter Taylor 30th Jan '13 - 3:57pm

    I agree entirely with Chris. As a sixth form teacher (and Lib Dem Cllr) I can understand the decision to remove January exams. However, the total removal of external exams after the first year of study will create problems.

    One year AS courses have increased the breadth of subjects being studied. They have also meant that students who underperformed at GCSE have evidence of their potential when applying to universities. I know from personal experience that students from less advantaged backgrounds often make great strides when they start studying at colleges/ sixth forms. This reform will make it more difficult for universities to know this.

    A-levels are not appropriate for everyone and having external exams after one year sometimes helps to make this clear. It is also the case that external exams force some less motivated students to learn the content of their course. Assessment and learning are not mutually exclusive. I have set up an epetition on this. If you agree, please sign and share it! http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44919

  • “the primary purpose of A-levels is to prepare students for degree-level study. ”

    IME it is very rare to see jobs advertised which ask for A levels (in the way you would see O levels, BTECs, degrees etc. Whether my experience is reflective of the employment market I don’t know – but if it was it wouldn’t indicate that they were particularly regarded as a workplace qualification

  • Peter Watson 30th Jan '13 - 10:21pm

    “The Liberal Democrats used to be the Party of education – what happened?”
    I always had a stereotypical view of the Lib Dems as a party full of teachers (despite not being any sort of educationalist myself). Consequently my biggest single disappointment with the party in coalition has been the apparent cheerleading by Clegg et al of Gove’s terrible changes and the dismissal as “dumbing down” of all of the work and effort put in by my children, their teachers, and my wife and me as parents. I have one child coming towards the end of the current examination system, another entering as Gove screws it up, and a third facing goodness knows whatever his legacy will be. I rejoice at the comments above by Chris, Henry, Helen, Julian and Peter, but even if this reflects the view of the larger party it seems irrelevant if the leadership is singing from Michael Gove’s hymnbook.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Jan '13 - 11:17am


    The prospect of the reintroduction of University entrance exams may take me back to the long hot summer of 1976. But for most this isn’t turning the clock back. It is simply moving many universities out of reach.

    This is to misunderstand how university admissions work.

    There are a particular number of university places. There are a particular number of sixth-former applying to university. The universities have to fill their place from those sixth-formers.

    Sixth-form qualifications are like a currency you buy university places with. The price of those places isn’t fixed. It goes up and down according to the currency being used to pay for them. Inflate the money supply and the price goes up. Deflate it, and the price goes down.

    The argument that some change in A-levels will make it harder for young people to get a university place is bogus, like the argument that making it easier to get mortgage makes it easier to buy houses. The house misconception is based on the bogus idea that house prices are fixed that some commission somewhere sets them, so if you give people more money to buy houses it will make it easier because they’ll have more money to pay those prices. It doesn’t – throwing more money into the money available to buy just pushes house prices up. In the end, there are a fixed number of houses coming onto the market, and their price will be whatever is the maximum that still gets them sold. Same with A-levels. Universities do not set some fixed unwavering requirement and accept however many or few applicants meet it. They set their real entrance requirements at whatever is needed to fill their places. If you make it harder to get high grades, entrance requirements come down – they have to, universities cannot afford to leave their spaces empty.

    I should state that universities, like many other businesses, play the game of advertising higher prices than they really charge, because this makes them look high quality, and then make you think you’ve been lucky and got a bargain when you pay what is actually the real price. I’m giving away one of the tricks of the trade here – but you know that line put out in the papers when the A-level results come out “If you’ve just missed your conditional offer, phone the admissions tutor and you just might get a chance”? It doesn’t really work like that, that line is just to make the students in question feel like they’ve got a bargain. The reality is that conditional offers are set several grades higher than the real price, to advertise “quality” and to make sure there’s no danger of an overshoot. The real price is set when the A-level results come in, which the universities get several days before the students get them. It’s however much lower you must go to fill your places, with a little bit left for Clearing applicants if you find that a source worth considering. So the reality is that the decision on who to admit who has not met the stated conditional offer requirement will in most cases already have been made before the student know s/he hasn’t met it.

    Now, the big problem here, which is why I am more sympathetic to Gove than most LibDems, is that as university departments HAVE to fill their places, unless they’re Oxbridge or subjects like Medicine which are always oversubscribed, they have to take on applicants with less than ideal qualifications. But this was creating a negative feedback – students with A-level subjects which weren’t appreciated at university level because experience showed they didn’t say much about the students’ abilities or seem to teach them much useful, were still being taken on, because places have to get filled. The schools were then saying “Look, university X accepts this subject, so there’s nothing wrong with it”. So students were dropping subjects that university X would much prefer them to have taken, and university X was forced to take them anyway. Although I’ve put it this way, there was quite a strong consensus across the university sector as to which subjects and qualifications they found most useful and which would lead admission tutors to slap their heads and think “WHY did you take that?”. The most useful subjects ARE those core subjects being pushed by Gove. There WAS a big problem of students, particularly from lower socio-economic backgrounds, not choosing those subjects even though they were perfectly capable of them, and thus not just damaging their chances of a place at the top universities which can afford to be more selective, but also damaging their chances of doing well in their degrees at the lower ranking universities which did accept them, because they did not have the best preparation for study at sixth form due to poor choice of subject.

  • Helen Tedcastle 31st Jan '13 - 11:59am

    Matthew Huntbach wrote: ” …there was quite a strong consensus across the university sector as to which subjects and qualifications they found most useful and which would lead admission tutors to slap their heads and think “WHY did you take that?”. The most useful subjects ARE those core subjects being pushed by Gove. There WAS a big problem of students, particularly from lower socio-economic backgrounds, not choosing those subjects even though they were perfectly capable of them…”

    As I have written elsewhere, I agree that the sheer number of different courses, especially the proliferation of ‘new’ A levels created under Labour, steered many students into courses which were unsuitable for degree level academic study. The reason for this was because Labour tried to entice more young people to stay on at college. Add to the mix the poor quality of the schools careers service and one creates a culture of poor decision-making amongst many young people without academic family backgrounds.

    We have to be clear – which A levels are useful ie: will be helpful in the particular degree chosen and which are absolutely essential?

    According to Gove, he has chosen the ‘essential’ subjects for the EBacc. For my subject, Religious Studies, the ‘essential’ subject is English. Other subjects like modern languages, History, are ‘useful.’ A Level Religious Studies is ‘useful.’ The problem is: each degree course has its own requirements. For instance, Music A level is ‘essential’ for Music degrees but is regarded as ‘soft’ by Gove and his cronies.
    Gove is trying to second guess the essential subjects for all courses. Another example: Geography is ‘essential’ for Geography and Archaeology degrees and ‘useful’ in other areas like Environmental Science – does this make it essential for all pupils? In my view, no.

    I am not against universities flagging up the problem of someone with an A level in Photography applying for a Law degree but the effect of Gove’s draconian changes is throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.

    There are more ‘useful’ subjects on the curriculum than Gove is giving credit for, in other words.

    There is now a real danger that a two-tier subject system is being created.

  • Peter Watson 31st Jan '13 - 1:15pm

    @Matthew Huntbach “The most useful subjects ARE those core subjects being pushed by Gove.”
    To an extent I agree. I am happy for my children to be studying Maths, English, Sciences, History (and Geography), and a modern language. I am equally happy that some of their friends dropped the modern language in order to pick a subject for which they had a better aptitude. Gove introduced the EBacc as an optional extra piece of paper for those that had chosen appropriate subjects, then pushed it on to the league table measures meaning schools are under pressure to restrict the choices of pupils, and is now moving to a system with EBCs at the core. He has moved seamlessly from using a carrot to a stick, and even the subjects included or excluded (valued and unvalued?) seems to reflect his personal predilections and risks reducing choices for children. I can’t say I’m impressed that Gove gives as much credence to Biblical Hebrew and Classical Greek as he does to modern languages, I’m a little uneasy with Computer Science at GCSE being an alternative to Physics/Chemistry/Biology, and it could become difficult to study both Geography and History if schools structure their options around the EBacc.
    In essence, I think that the EBacc represents a very sensible set of subjects for many (most?) children but not all. However its implementation has become too prescriptive and restrictive, and is not the best set of subjects for every child.

  • Peter Watson 31st Jan '13 - 1:23pm

    @Matthew Huntbach ” there was quite a strong consensus across the university sector as to which subjects and qualifications they found most useful and which would lead admission tutors to slap their heads and think “WHY did you take that?””
    I know from previous posts that you have very strong feelings about students wishing to study Computing at university being wrongly advised about the suitability of computer studies courses at GCSE/A-Level, but are you commenting here about a wider problem that affects other degree subjects?

    I would suggest that often the answer to “WHY did you take that?” is because at 16 a child had not yet decided what they wanted to do at 18 and beyond. One of the advantages of the AS system is that it allows children to keep their options open for longer (or take an AS in Year 13 to open up a new option), and that is something I believe Gove is making worse with the changes proposed this week.

  • Matthew, can I suggest you re-read the Informed Choices report? a) The list of subject is based on frequency not usefulness as you suggest – the Russell Group would not be foolish enough to claim such a monopoly, b) the Russell Group has criticised the misuse of its Informed Choices report to justify this list of subjects, c) the Russell Group’s over-riding advice is to check Universities and courses directly and choose appropriate subjects! This is to say nothing about the actual fallibility of the Russell Group itself.

    I find suggestions that subjects x or y (with the exception of maths and English) are ‘core’ and somehow more valuable – frequency of requirement notwithstanding – is in itself not especially liberal. Second, even in the context of subject value discussions there are more comprehensive lists available from Russell Group members.

    Gove has hand-picked one small bit of evidence, misinterpreted it and/or misapplied it to his own agenda and at the moment, we seem to be party to this.

  • Julian Critchley 31st Jan '13 - 4:32pm

    The debate about “which subjects” is not the same debate as whether AS levels should continue in their present form, or the use of modular A-levels rather than 2-year single exam a-levels.

    However, never knowingly passing up the chance to talk education policy, I would add that this whole debate about “which subject” is incredibly skewed towards upper-ability academic students who may go on to academic courses at university. In many ways, this sums up Gove’s whole unpleasantness (remember when he announced he was bringing back O-levels, but had absolutely no idea what he’d do for the 60% of students who can’t access O-Levels ?).

    Our school system cannot be designed solely to cater for above-average children of an academic bent. Because there will always be children who are not academic and for whom such restricted choices as the Ebacc and academic A-levels measured by a one-off memory test, will be completely inappropriate. Only two years ago, my school, despite its generally academic above-average intake, was beginning to develop some really first-class vocational qualifications for non-academic students : childcare, health and social care and travel and tourism may well be easy targets for Daily Mail snobs, but the record of students from those courses getting jobs in those essential and growing industries was excellent. Those students were being given a qualification which suited them, which gave them useful skills and knowledge, and which secured them jobs at the end of their education. Some students, who started down the more traditional academic route, but found they couldn’t cope, were guided gently on to more vocational courses and suddenly found that school was useful again. Nobody had to do them, and for the more academic child, the vocational stuff was something which went on elsewhere. In fact, it was what you might call a comprehensive education : academic students got their academic GCSEs and A-levels and went on to Uni; vocational students got their vocational qualifications and either went on to FE college or a job. The two areas were entirely permeable with stuents able to mix and match or move from one to the other. Everyone rubbed along and the school was doing its job well.

    Then Gove vomited out the Ebacc. Suddenly, every child, whether academic or otherwise, was forced to take Ebacc subjects, which has resulted in a lot of students beginning a two year journey of failing to access a course which was never suitable for them and in which they have no interest. At the same time, our vocational qualifications have been hammered, with budgets cut, courses closed and teachers reassigned. It makes me want to weep when I see the wasted potential of students who could be obtaining useful – if not “traditional” – qualifications, and going into productive work, being forced instead into some throwback model of my school in the 1980s, in which two-thirds of students saw school as an unpleasant irrelevance from which they would emerge with either qualifications which had no use for them, or – worse – no qualifications at all.

    The whole education debate as portrayed by Gove is based on an utter nonsense which is that all children are of equal ability, have identical interests and should go to similar universities to do academic degrees. Clearly that’s rubbish , but every single policy Gove is pushing is based on that idea. He never says anything about less able children, or those for whom university or academic degrees are not the right option. I genuinely believe he’s the most dangerous person we’ve ever had as an education secretary in this country. He simply does not acknowledge the existence of any child who is in any way different to the children he went to school with, and his policies are going to seriously hurt millions of children for whom the school system will again become a tortuous irrelevance.

    A major problem with education debate in this country is that it is dominated by journalists and politicians who were high achievers at school, and whose children are likely to be high achievers at school. As a result, there’s always advocates for gifted and talented programmes, and gold standards, grammar schools and A*s and so on, but the voices of those who are not in those categories are rarely heard. Gove’s only answer is “If you just work them harder, and make them sit there for longer, then they’ll be like us”. But like the rest of his policies, it’s nonsense.

  • cllr juliet solomon 31st Jan '13 - 5:43pm

    I am surprised that Chris White expects there to have been any consultation about this. There is no evidence that Gove has ever consulted anybody. He just makes up whatever policy he happens to fancy, it would seem, probably based entirely on his own experiences – as though other people were similar to him (????) I expect some of them will be OK; with so many, the laws of probability would lead to the odd bullseye. But more are unlikely to be suitable for anything except treating young people the way that Gove treats people – not likely to inspire a love of learning or any motivation at all.

  • Helen Tedcastle 31st Jan '13 - 10:11pm

    @ Julian Critchley

    A brilliant post. I agree with every word.
    Your experience is similar to mine over roughly twenty years in teaching. There are those for whom the stress on academic qualifications will pose no significant change – they will get their academic certificates and go on to university. Those in the middle ability range will be able to access most academic subjects but will find success in one or two other areas; the pupils towards the lower end of the middle range and the lowest ability are really going struggle to pass the EBCs. It is clear that Gove is not interested in them at all.

    The new ‘system’ is not only potentially divisive but educationally unsound. To create a two-tier system of subjects – an arbitrary mix of academic humanities like Religious Studies with creative subjects like Music and Art and technology subjects, sends out bizarre messages – the latter are not intrinsically worthy of high status – they are for the less academic.

    I have spent twenty years doing my best to help pupils to raise their aspirations and persuade them to work hard in my subject (Religious Studies), to aspire to do AS/A Level and go on to university (Oxbridge, Russell Group and others), only for Gove to come in and tell them that actually their GCSEs are useless – and only the EBCs in certain humanities are worth the candle.

    Apparently, in Singapore, Religious Studies is in the same option block as vocational subjects like Cooking and Textiles. This is obviously where he got the idea – thus ignoring and undermining the pioneering work in RE/RS carried out in the UK over the last 20 years or so. It is not the same subject as it was when I was at school, when it was RI and taught by anyone with a free period.

    He is the worst Education Secretary we have ever had and the really galling thing is that he is being propped up in power by our leaders – who are reluctant to speak out against this dangerous ideologue.

  • Is there any evidence that we’re suffering from insufficient pupils studying Religious Studies at A level?

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Feb '13 - 12:11am

    Peter Watson

    I would suggest that often the answer to “WHY did you take that?” is because at 16 a child had not yet decided what they wanted to do at 18 and beyond

    Yes, so why therefore choose subjects which most cut off options at 18?

    That really is my point, 16 year olds often don’t realise that it’s the most general abstract subjects which keep their options most open.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Feb '13 - 12:16am

    Julian Critchley

    Then Gove vomited out the Ebacc. Suddenly, every child, whether academic or otherwise, was forced to take Ebacc subjects, which has resulted in a lot of students beginning a two year journey of failing to access a course which was never suitable for them and in which they have no interest.

    To what extent is it Gove FORCING this, and to what extent is it schools themselves choosing to put position in these league tables above all other factors?

  • Does education have intrinsic value? Or is it just a tool by which we “help” people find their “proper” economic role in a highly stratified society?

  • Richard Dean 1st Feb '13 - 2:19am

    Here’s a try ….

    A good education is a continuing activity involving transfers of facts, skills, and techniques for creation, analysis and synthesis, and should aim to help people to enjoy their lives.

    Well that’s certainly didactic! Many apologies! Can I continue ….? …

    Part of a good education will be preparation for a job, since much of enjoyment requires participation in society, which requires common experiences and money! Part of it will be learning how to think independently, because this gives security and interest and opportunity as well as the joy of the occasional ah-ha moment. Part will be learning how to cooperate, because many joys come from that. Part will be learning about oneself and others and how to control one’s dark side, because that is a bad place to get lost in!

    But my students tell me this is rubbish …They are interested in all things, of course, but come the end of semester they are quite clear about what education is – passing exams!

    So I have to trick them into thinking during the semester, get them to learn without them noticing that that’s what they’re doing, but at the end I give them something that should allow them to show that (or if) they have learnt some facts or skills.

    What does the government think an education is? There must surely be some official definition of aims and scope?

  • Helen Tedcastle 1st Feb '13 - 9:57am

    @ Mark Inskip: ” Is there any evidence that we’re suffering from insufficient pupils studying Religious Studies at A level?”

    Is there any evidence that we’re suffering from insufficient pupils studying Latin, Ancient Greek, Ancient History? After all, Michael Gove has put them into the EBacc.

    It’s not a question of suffering – that’s just plain silly.

    It’s about giving a young person a chance to learn about some of the great ideas, philosophies and great texts that have shaped this world. It may not be of immediate utilitarian value – then again, students in Religious Studies analyse utilitarian thinking and can come to their own conclusions based on the evidence .

    Learning to think , analyse and synthesise – high order skills – quite ‘useful’ and necessary even in these tough ‘economic’ times.

  • Helen Tedcastle 1st Feb '13 - 10:08am

    @Matthew Huntbach: ” To what extent is it Gove FORCING this, and to what extent is it schools themselves choosing to put position in these league tables above all other factors?”

    Schools are in competition with other schools – the league tables are being used by parents for good or ill to make what they regard as ‘informed choices’ about where to send their offspring.

    Gove knows this – he knows that vested self-interest and preservation drives the system these days. It’s not a question of openly forcing but making it impossible for schools not to compete at the rawest, street-fighter level.

    The Education Select Committee have condemned this way of behaving but as he has the power, he can do what he likes – and no one appears to want to stop him, including our leader.

  • Nigel Jones 1st Feb '13 - 10:53am

    When is our party and this government going to give priority to improving education for those who do not go to university ?
    Is it not also time to reconsider the whole system, especially now that youngsters are going to ‘stay’ in education up to 18 ?

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Feb '13 - 4:51pm

    Helen Tedcastle

    @Matthew Huntbach: ” To what extent is it Gove FORCING this, and to what extent is it schools themselves choosing to put position in these league tables above all other factors?”

    Schools are in competition with other schools – the league tables are being used by parents for good or ill to make what they regard as ‘informed choices’ about where to send their offspring

    Thanks, I wanted that to be confirmed, in short, it is not just Gove that is forcing this. If all these people who are complaining about the EBacc simply agreed they wouldn’t pay it much attention, then the problems suggested would not not occur. It’s been claimed that schools are FORCED to drop attention to all subject except the EBacc ones, but that is not true. They have DECIDED to do so because they have decided to put position on some league table that will be concocted using the EBacc figures above all other things. They don’t have to.

    I have been particularly dissapointed in the reaction of many faith schools to Religious Education not being included in the EBacc. I have always defended the existence of faith schools, and used the argument that they are not just a ruse for middle class types to get their children into high-performing schools and exclude others, that in fact they take their faith seriously. Well, if that were the case they ought not to be bothered by the exclusion of RE from the EBacc, because they should be teaching RE because they believe in its value. It would be a proof of their honesty, of the arguments I use to defend them, if they were not perturbed by any drop in the league tables due to the exclusion of RE from the EBacc. It calls into question whether they truly believe in their mission if they would consider downgrading RE from their curriculum in order to save their league table places.

    We have had hordes of arts luvvies bemoaning creative arts not being in the EBacc. But these arts luvvies are the people who CONTROL the arts world. If they think the EBacc is poor because it excludes creative arts, they don’t have to pay attention to it. THEY are the ones giving out the jobs in creative arts, so if they think the EBacc is no good for them, they should just make clear they will pay no attention to it when deciding who to employ.

    I would regard any school which grossly distorts its curriculum because the EBacc in they way we are being told schools are “forced” to as a very bad school. If I had children, I would not want to send them to a school which behaved in that way, putting meeting some arbitrary points level above all other consideration.

    In short, if there is so much opposition to the EBacc, the very people who are opposed to it have the power to weaken its influence by not taking at as the only thing that matters in education.

  • Julian Critchley 1st Feb '13 - 6:19pm

    @Matthew
    “It’s been claimed that schools are FORCED to drop attention to all subject except the EBacc ones, but that is not true. They have DECIDED to do so because they have decided to put position on some league table that will be concocted using the EBacc figures above all other things. They don’t have to.”

    This is of course true (sorry, I can’t reply during working hours). Helen has explained why. However, there’s such issues as constrained choice. I can, for example, choose to ignore the curriculum and teach whatever I find more interesting. My students would fail their exams, and I’d lose my job. So I think it’s not unreasonable to say that I’m forced to follow the exam syllabus. Heads feel the same way about league tables. They could choose to ignore the Ebacc and deliver an education aimed at the needs and aptitudes of all their students, rather than the academic upper 30%. However, their league table position would decrease, OFSTED would give them a poor report for not folllowing Govian fashion, and the consequences of that would result in some parents sending their kids to schools who play the game, and even being forced into one of Gove’s favourite Tory donor academy chains, resulting in the Head losing his/her job.

    “I would regard any school which grossly distorts its curriculum because the EBacc in they way we are being told schools are “forced” to as a very bad school. If I had children, I would not want to send them to a school which behaved in that way, putting meeting some arbitrary points level above all other consideration. ”

    This is fine as a purist position. However, in the real world, you’re going to find that within a couple of years, you’ll be hard-pushed to find any school which hasn’t reorganised its curriculum to squeeze as many children into Ebacc subjects as possible, whether they’re suited/interested or not. Because even if you did find a school which refused to play the game and continued with a comprehensive curriculum for all children, then while you were standing congratulating the Head, there’d be a whole bunch of othr parents whose understanding of education goes no further than the league tables in the Daily Telegraph and the most recent OFSTED report, who would be sending their kids elsewhere.

    We need to operate in the real world. Gove has designed the Ebacc concept to force schools to teach his preferred 1950s curriculum, and he knows full well that his cant about school independence and “freedom” is a charade. Schools may have a choice about this, but it’s the choice of whether to try and scramble into the lifeboats or stay on a sinking ship. The LibDems should be committing to reversing this madness now.

  • Helen Tedcastle 1st Feb '13 - 6:39pm

    @ Matthew Huntbach; ” If all these people who are complaining about the EBacc simply agreed they wouldn’t pay it much attention, then the problems suggested would not not occur.”

    I couldn’t agree more. However, this is under the assumption that all Headteacher, teachers’ unions and related stakeholders could agree a way collectively of defying the Government. However, it would take considerable courage and defiance to refuse to implement the law – not only would headteachers have to defy Ofsted (not known for their benevolence) but the media, parents ( sure many don’t like the Government but we have to account for the sharp-elbowed brigade) and the current political zeitgeist. Labour are not exactly bending over backwards in their support under Stephen Twigg. I believe some Independent schools are not going to implement the EBacc ( so they say now) but the stakes are high. Gove has cleverly manoeuvred the Russell Group into his thinking and has used their ‘facilitating subjects’ suggestion as the prescription for entry to university. The view going round schools now is that only facilitating subjects gain you entry . The hare is out of the trap set by Gove and his sidekick, Truss.
    I’m sure that was never their intention but the consequences of Gove’s literalism are far-reaching. How many schools are going to jeopardise the chances of their kids going to university in the next few years in the vain hope that their stand will change Gove’s mind? The only way I can see of changing the zeitgeist ,is for courageous politicians ( there used to be some in our party) to turn round to Gove and say, enough is enough – your experiment has gone far enough – we will not support further chaos in schools.

    On RE and faith schools – the heads of faith schools are just as much under Ofsted and the Secretary of State as other schools – it will remain a core subject but they are deeply worried that the loss of perceived ‘parity of esteem’ when History and Geography become EBCs, while RS remains a GCSE, gives the impression to students and parents that it is less important, when for their schools it is vital – you can’t keep society and its hierarchy of goods at the school gates, unfortunately! Status and perception are everything in the modern school, thanks to powerful Education secretaries and Ofsted. Gove knows this and is cynically manipulating schools for his own ends – I would put it that strongly.

  • Helen Tedcastle 1st Feb '13 - 9:45pm

    @ Julian Critchley: ” We need to operate in the real world. Gove has designed the Ebacc concept to force schools to teach his preferred 1950s curriculum, and he knows full well that his cant about school independence and “freedom” is a charade. Schools may have a choice about this, but it’s the choice of whether to try and scramble into the lifeboats or stay on a sinking ship. The LibDems should be committing to reversing this madness now.”

    Just read your post and agree completely, particularly the final paragraph – this nightmare has been unfolding for two years and now we’re at ‘red alert.’

  • Peter Watson 1st Feb '13 - 11:47pm

    @Julian Critchley & Helen Tedcastle
    I am not a teacher – my only connection to the school system is as the parent of three children at different stages of primary school, high school and 6th form. And as a parent I agree with everything you have written and I share your concerns: I despair at the support Lib Dems in coalition have given Gove. We all have our different last straws or red lines, but this is the reason I shall no longer be voting Lib Dem in any sort of election for the foreseeable future

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Feb '13 - 10:11pm

    Helen Tedcastle

    I couldn’t agree more. However, this is under the assumption that all Headteacher, teachers’ unions and related stakeholders could agree a way collectively of defying the Government. However, it would take considerable courage and defiance to refuse to implement the law

    I an not saying “refuse to implement the law”. That is why I asked the question over whether this was a compulsion. All I am asking is that is it absolutely necessary for every school to regard position in a league table measured by EBacc results as all that counts, the only goal to pursue? The claims that have been made about the EBacc “forcing” various things suggests it is. But so far as I can see, the EBacc does not actually BAN the teaching on non-EBacc subjects, indeed as it proposes EBacc subjects as the core, it assume some other subjects will be taught as well. Therefore, if a school chooses to put all its resources into teaching the EBacc subjects and runs the others down completely, that’s NOT forced on it by law, it’s a decision it has decided to take.Why? Does highest possible position in the league table mean so much that all else should be ignored? I would hope not – I would hope any decent school would be proud to say that while it puts effort into getting pupils through the EBacc subjects it does not do so by ignoring everything else.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Feb '13 - 10:33pm

    Helen Tedcastle

    Gove has cleverly manoeuvred the Russell Group into his thinking and has used their ‘facilitating subjects’ suggestion as the prescription for entry to university. The view going round schools now is that only facilitating subjects gain you entry

    This is simply not the case. You have got things the wrong way round. This is just SO typical of the attitude that used to so annoy me with schools when I was an admissions tutor – this idea that we operate according to some rigid set of rules, so that some mild suggestions we might try to put out on the subjects that would be preferable get interpreted as “they’ve banned subject X”. But if we didn’t make those mild suggestions, we found that schools were pushing their pupils into subject X on the grounds “look, the universities accept it”.

    It is a FACT that there was a HUGE problem with too many students, particularly from the lower socio-economic groups, making a poor choice of subject at GCSE and A-level stage, and therefore cutting themselves off from the possibility of some university places, and arriving at other who would take them poorly prepared for the degrees they wanted to take. Although I’m particularly concerned and have specialist knowledge about my own discipline (see the article in today’s Observer Review section), I know many other academic disciplines experienced something similar. Most admissions tutors would agree there were certain A-level subjects which tended to be a marker of a student who would perform poorly, not so much a problem if a student had one of them, but a big issue when a student applied with all three A-levels in such subjects – and the lower down the socio-economic scale, the more likely this was to be the case. We weren’t saying this through snobbery, or because politicians like Gove were twisting our arms, we were saying it out of experience. Many of us were trying to get this message across to government, but in the Blair era, they just weren’t listening to us. We don’t like turning away students, but we don’t like taking on students and then failing them. We appreciate that not every student has an aptitude for the more abstract and academic subjects – but we needed to get the message out that those who were capable of such subjects were well advised to persist with them because in our experience they were the best preparation for our degrees.

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