Clegg and Gove show united front on plan to overhaul GCSEs

Nick Clegg and Michael Gove will today present a carefully joined up front as they present proposals to overhaul GCSEs. In June, the two clashed after the education secretary let slip his desire to return to O-levels, swiftly dubbed ‘Gove-levels’. The Lib Dem leader immediately dismissing any notion of a return to a two-tier system exam system which would have likely resulted in high numbers of poorer children in the most disadvantaged areas sitting the CSE exams which would close off their opportunities for later progress into higher education and many professional careers. Their row may also have contributed to the appointment of David Laws as schools minister to ensure a Lib Dem ‘enforcer’, totally trusted by Clegg, within the education department.

Agreement has now broken out, however, with both Lib Dems and Tories now uniting behind the idea of a consciously more rigorous exam system. Importantly, the idea floated by Gove of two-tier qualifications, splitting higher ability and lower ability pupils into separate streams, has been ditched. Instead there will be a single exam paper, reports the BBC, with ‘a greater spectrum of questions within a single paper, graded from easy to hard to show their difficulty’. The highest grades will, it is said, be reserved for “high-flyers”, though how this is achieved without recourse to a crude quota we’ll have to see. The new system has also been delayed until after the 2015 general election, with the first students sitting the tests in 2017.

Generally this sounds positive. A move away from modular exams which saw constant re-takes tending to advantage the middle-classes is welcome; though I hope coursework, a different form of assessment which also helps keep kids on-task during the year, continues to comprise part of the qualification.

Perhaps the more crucial part of the reforms is the least commented-on: the plan to abolish the system of multiple exam boards, a distorted market which many suspect has resulted in schools shopping around for the most lenient markers, and the boards lowering their standards to meet demand. Instead, there will be a single board for each subject with a competitive tender process every five years. This strikes me as a much better system, though with the real risk (as with rail franchising) of appointing a single supplier which fails to deliver. It will be interesting to see what safeguards Clegg and Gove propose to mitigate this.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Hi Stephen,

    Can you show the evidence that Gove’s reforms are ‘more rigorous’ – this is often claimed, but where’s the evidence and analysis?

    And, the modular structure, which is in part a form of continuous assessment has already been abolished…

  • A move away from modular exams which saw constant re-takes tending to advantage the middle-classes is welcome

    So instead we’ll move back to an all-or-nothing system which advantages whoever can cram the most facts into their short-term memory to give the illusion of understanding the topic. And I speak as someone who was very good at this, allowing me to get excellent grades at subjects which I didn’t have high ability in.

    And I’d be interested in the evidence that modules benefit the middle classes – not saying you’re wrong, just would like to see the statement backed up. I imagine coursework benefits the middle classes a lot more, though I agree that it’s an important alternative to avoid penalising students who just aren’t very good at exams.

    To be honest, the only thing I can see to support in these proposals is the shift to single exam boards. Multiple boards were the real driver of grade inflation, so we could achieve the same increase in ‘rigour’ by keeping GCSEs but with single boards.

    The best “concession” won by Nick is probably the date – hopefully if Labour is the largest party after the next election they can scrap this plan before it comes into effect.

  • Helen Tedcastle 17th Sep '12 - 10:21am

    The naivety of this article is touching.

    This deal between Gove and Clegg was cooked up in secret over the summer. It is totally unnecessary. GCSE is a good examination – it is fair, inclusive and demanding in its specifications. The criteria for attaining A* could easily be made more demanding without scrapping the entire thing.

    The single exam board idea is draconian but in the short-term would solve the problem of exam boards competing over specifications.

    The problem with a return to purely terminal examinations is that everything will now depend on how good a person is at taking exams. Coursework enabled those who work well at a consistent level throughout the year will lose out.

    How is going back to the early 1980s a step forward? If the Tories win the next election, it’s a tiny step to make for Gove to introduce a CSE-type exam for the ‘less able,’ claiming that the new exam is too demanding for 40% or more of young people.

    The fact that Gove and Clegg are going to put on a united front today shows me that Clegg is so divorced from reality that he needs to be replaced.

    I say this as a long-standing Liberal Democrat member and not a Marxist-Leninst leftie, as so many opponents of Gove’s reforms are characterised!

  • Gove’s insistence on single end of course exams is dumb in gthe extreme. What is his argument for this position? That success in end of course exams are the height of academic and intellectual ability? Think I coudl find dozens of lecturers who would disagree with him on that. This is dumb Tory traditionalism, plain and simple.

  • Mr Clegg needs to stop acting as a PR for policies that will damage the Lib Dems. He should take a back seat and let Cameron lend vocal support for Gove’s frankly ridiculous ideas. This might seem great to the Tory press, but it’s yet another thing, on top of tuition fees, that will give ordinary parents a reason for clobbering the lib Dem’s.
    Aside from a single exam board there is nothing worth supporting and yet another sign that the Lib Dem leadership’s default setting is capitulation. I’m honestly, beginning to think there’s a death wish amongst Lib Dem’s cabinet members!

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Sep '12 - 11:07am

    I’m sorry to see that ONCE AGAIN Nick Clegg seems intent on making a difficult situation worse.

    He did not have to appear alongside Michael Gove here, so why did he? The reforms proposed here are very much along the lines that Gove has been pushing. There has not been any push for this sort of thing within the Liberal Democrats. If we were establishing policy on formal school qualifications on our own, it would be something very different to this. I write this as someone who has some sympathy with Gove’s ideas for ending the sloppiness that has crept into school qualifications in recent years (though no sympathy for a lot of his other ideas). I would be happy to argue the case for this within our party, but I’m not happy with this being presented as if it has “Liberal Democrat support” when there has been no such argument within the party, and no expression from its member for a move in this direction.

    Now the issue is that however much there may be moans about what has happened within the Liberal Democrat membership, outside the few thousand people that means, what is being proposed here will be taken as “Liberal Democrat policy”, assumed to be what we have wanted all the time and are now implementing as we are in government. But is just isn’t, is it? So why go along with publicity management of it which gives the impression to millions of people in this country that it is? Can’t Clegg see that this sort of thing is enormously damaging to our party? Again and again we are seeing policy coming out from this government which is very different from anything we would be proposing if we had complete control of the government, but it is described as “Coalition policy” so therefore the rest of the world assumes we are in full agreement with it.

    Now I accept that being in coalition means we have to find compromises between our ideal and what the Conservatives want. I also accept that the decision to enter the coalition on the basis of our share of the seats rather than our share of the votes means our influence is fairly small. What is coming out as “coalition policy” is about what I would expect from a government which is five-sixths Conservative and only one-sixth Liberal Democrat. I have argued many times in Liberal Democrat Voice and elsewhere that the situation following the May 2010 general election left us with no better option than to accept this coalition in which we would be just a small influence, mainly balancing the worst of the far right of the Conservative Party. In this particular case, the maintenance of a unified system rather than the reintroduction of a formal O-level/CSE divide may indeed be something gained from negotiation at the expense of having to let much else go.

    So why can’t we say this? Why can’t we as a party – I mean here those managing our national publicity and creating the image of what the general public outside our areas of strong local campaigning believe to be what we are about – just make it quite clear what the situation is? We have accepted a coalition in which we have just a small influence because it is the only stable government that could come out of the 2010 general election, and we accept there is a need for stable government, and that the 2010 general election was a legitimate democratic exercise (particularly after the 2011 referendum rejected reform of the electoral system we have, and so effectively endorsed the distortions which make us weak and the Tories strong in this Parliament). Unfortunately, since coalition government is a novelty in this country, that point has not really been understood, and has resulted in all sorts of accusations being thrown at our party, which are actually completely unrealistic as they are based on some fantasy notion that we could somehow have engineered a government which pushes nothing but Liberal Democrat policies from the situation in 2010. Isn’t it in our interests to educate the people about this? To let them know that we could achieve more along the lines of what we proposed in the 2010 general election if only we had more MPs? To let them know that we can’t actually implement Liberal Democrat policies in full if more people choose to vote Labour and Conservative than choose to vote Liberal Democrat. Also to point out out that the consequences of not having a proportional representation system are what we see now – a government over-dominated by the party which received the most votes even though those votes were nowhere near half the total – if people want to see more influence from smaller parties like us, they need to push for electoral reform.

    Instead, we see publicity events like this one, Clegg and Gove together appearing to be two people thinking alike, which bolster all our opponents have been successfully throwing against us – the idea that we have sold out on our principles not for real “power” but for a few of our top members to have nice government posts with nice salaries and the chance to appear important, or perhaps because secretly underneath what we said in 2010 we really were just “yellow Tories”. If you want to lose most of the votes we used to get, this is how to do it.

    As I said, Clegg did not need to appear with Gove here. This is yet another case of us trying to “look big” and so giving the impression that most of what this government is doing is what we want a government to do. Insanely, we were until recently encouraged not just to push the idea this government was half ours, rather than one sixth, but three quarters ours!

    What was needed was Gove at the front here, promoting what is essentially his policies. A Conservative promoting Conservative policies. Our leader needed to be straight about the process here – being in the coalition has given us a little influence over it, we’ve been involved in pushing it a bit towards our way, but that’s all. As what is being done here does not result from large scale Liberal Democrat influence, Clegg should not be standing at the front giving the impression that it does. If the leader feels he can’t be honest and say it’s a long way from our ideal, we need a mechanism in which someone else who does not hold a government post can do so.

  • David from Ealing 17th Sep '12 - 11:10am

    Exams are a useless way of assessing people. Why, oh why is Nick Clegg giving his approval to this? I despair.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Sep '12 - 11:17am

    I had written something longer which may appear if it is permitted. The gist of it is that I am disappointed that once again we are in the position whereby something which is clearly a compromise and far from our ideal is presented, thanks to the way our leader is involved, as if we are fully in support of it all and it was what we always wanted. I would like our party to be honest in its public presentations in making clear that a coalition in which we have one sixth of the MPs and hence one sixth of the power is not going to be pumping out policy which is 100% Liberal Democrat. I think we are being damaged by presentation which seems designed to make it appear we have as much (or maybe more) power in the coalition as the Conservatives, and thus makes it appear as if we have adopted the basically Conservative policies coming from this government as our own.

    The “united front” here is such a good example of how our party is losing out due to misguided presentation.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Sep '12 - 12:21pm

    David from Ealing

    Exams are a useless way of assessing people.

    On the substantive, sorry, but I disagree. From my direct experience in education exams work. One of the most important aspects is that we can be reasonably (fraud does occur) sure that the work submitted is from the student in question. We can’t be sure of this with work done in the student’s own time. We also have the objective basis of a national framework which we would not have if we were relying purely on internal teacher assessment. Also we have discovered in recent years that actually the big-bang one exam assessment is perhaps not the most stressful way of doing it. Continuous assessment just seems to cause continuous stress.

    In my experience there is a fairly good correlation between exam grades and the skills they are supposed to be assessing, but note the “fairly good”. It’s not perfect. Setting exams is a constant battle between trying to properly assess what is important and trying to avoid those who attempt to get through via “exam techniques”. Of course there are ups and downs, students who do poorly in the day, students who are lucky, and there does seem to be this thing whereby boys tend to do better at the “big bang” assessment while girls do better at the long drawn out assessment.

    The main thing is to accept the exams are just a rough snapshot. So we really should not get as hung up as we do on the precise figures they give and the precise way they are obtained.

    One thing that seems to get forgotten is that exams are a floating currency. Inflate grades and costs go up, and vice versa. When I was a university admissions tutor, I did not set a rigid set of entrance grades and say “I will take however many or few get these grades”. In practice the entrance grade was whatever was necessary to fill my places. I met set BBB as my requirements to be put in the prospectus, but if I’d go as low below that as necessary until I had filled my places. Also, knowing grades are a rough snapshot, I never relied on grades alone, although I am told these days with the league table pressure and AAB nonsense just introduced, there’s huge pressure on admissions tutors form above to do a grades-alone decisions-making process.

    One thing I detest is this idea that exams are “memory tests”. I have never set an exam which is a memory test. Sadly, many students are brought down because they cannot get over this idea that exams are about memorisation. In my experience, the biggest cause of failure is students who confuse memorisation with learning and so laboriously spend hours memorising without understanding, and then fail badly because this tactic just does not work. This is one reason why I have some sympathy with the Gove agenda of moving away from the “vocational” qualifications. Unfortunately, many of these were brought in on the cheap. They look very good with relevant-sounding titles, but underneath they were just too much based on memorisation of definitions (often outdated) and reproduction of same in exams. It’s cheap to teach and assess in that way. Students like it because it’s easy. Blairite politicians liked it because, well, they were easily misled by something which appeared “modern”, and mostly they were simple types and not very numerate, so easily misled by simple statistical arguments.

  • Helen Tedcastle 17th Sep '12 - 1:14pm

    Matthew Huntbach: “What is being proposed here will be taken as “Liberal Democrat policy”, assumed to be what we have wanted all the time and are now implementing as we are in government. But is just isn’t, is it? So why go along with publicity management of it which gives the impression to millions of people in this country that it is? ”

    These proposals are far from our party’s policy and not in the Coalition Agreement. They are closer to what Gove and the Tories want – a return to O levels. We are but one small ‘reform’ away from the return of CSEs – and Gove will hope he can deliver that in 2015 if the Tories win the GE.

    Can’t Clegg see that this sort of thing is enormously damaging to our party? Again and again we are seeing policy coming out from this government which is very different from anything we would be proposing if we had complete control of the government, but it is described as “Coalition policy” so therefore the rest of the world assumes we are in full agreement with it.. ”

    No Clegg can’t see it , which is why Tuition Fees, NHS reforms, AV have been own goals for the the Lib Dem Party, rather than successes.

    Inexplicably and regrettably, only Mr Clegg and his closest aides believe that the undermining of and scrapping of the GCSE to return to O Level-type exams as a triumph for the Lib Dems.

    Lack of political antennae is a serious weakness in a party leader, in my opinion.

  • Rebecca, you need to read my post properly. I spoke at conference last year and called for Federal Policy Committee to prioritise secondary education for policy review. I then voted against FPC’s priorities which, inexplicably, omitted this key area. I got clapped but not many voted with me. Instead we are being offered a mish-mash of a debate on education on Saturday on a motion which appears concerned to tweak coalition policy rather than up-grade Liberal Democrat policy. I’m afraid party conference and our elected committees have created a vacuum into which Mr Gove and the Orange Bookers have oozed themselves.

  • David Allen 17th Sep '12 - 1:59pm

    I fear the compromise process might be as follows:

    Stage 1: Gove invents O levels for bright kids and CSEs for less bright kids.

    Stage 2: Clegg objects to two tier.

    Stage 3: Gove says “OK, fine, we’ll withdraw the CSEs. Then the less bright kids can just take the O levels, and fail them miserably. If they don’t like that, they’ll know it was the Lib Dems who asked for it.”

  • Keith Browning 17th Sep '12 - 2:06pm

    It depends what you want to achieve.

    System One – give the student/trainee a huge amount of information which few if any can learn in its entirety and where the student’s competence is tested in a lottery of questions at the end.

    System Two – a planned training schedule is developed where at each stage of learning the student is expected to be competent. Once competence at level one is achieved then the student moves to stage two and so on.

    This system expects 90% competence at each stage and really close to 100%. Stage one then is encorporated in stage two and so the information and competence is repeated and becomes engrained.

    I worked as a school teacher using system one and if has always been full of problems for anyone less than Einstein.

    I used system two as a training manager training in the work situation and it was brilliant. Students were initially highly doubtful they could gain 100% competence at each stage but after the bite sized pieces of elephant were consumed we had one of the best trained work forces in our highly technical industry.

    Picking questions from a huge realm of text, like a lottery is something for the 1950s. Madness..!!!

  • David

    I fear it went more like this.

    Gove: “Here’s my latest education reform.”

    Clegg: “Looks fine to me. Oh, hang on a minute. We do need to demonstrate that I have real influence in government. So – erm – oh right, that two-tier system is absolutely unacceptable.”

    Gove: “OK, we’ll put that on hold for the time being. Anything else?”

    Clegg: “No, it’s all fine. We do need to have that row about the two-tier thing in public, though …”

  • I am not yet clear on the details of the proposals and whether or not coursework and the like will be included, so I am going to refrain from commenting. But if everything is exams, then the proposal is ridiculous, regardless of the [welcome] blocking of the two tier system.

  • Alex Macfie 17th Sep '12 - 3:15pm

    I’ve never understood why the multiple-resit issue was never resolved by limiting resits to one per module, and capping the grade that could be achieved on a resit. Most universities that do modular courses have this rule.

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 3:38pm

    There seem to be so many flaws with what is currently being reported.
    On the political front, Matthew Huntbach identifies an important one: this is not Lib Dem policy. Where was the debate, the scrutiny, the assessment, the alternatives, the consensus? Lib Dem input appears to limited to ruling out a second tier qualification (which might need to be reversed under Gove’s proposed system) and delaying the start so that an incoming Labour government can cancel it (hardly a vote of confidence).
    On the academic front, it seems to be about an exam. Not about the curriculum, the style of teaching, or even an evidence-based best practice approach to assessment. I am sure that there are plenty of ways to improve the current system: single exam boards for a subject (why can’t the right come out and admit that the market is not a panacea), more subjects having the equivalent of GCSE Advanced Maths, etc. But the LD leadership seems to be helping Gove to acting on his pet prejudices without subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny or debate.
    I am a parent who respects the amount of work my oldest child put into his recent successful GCSEs (and whose younger children will have to struggle through the system after Gove has messed it up with help from Clegg). I have excelled in exams at O-level, A-level and university, and have little respect for the notion that a single examination paper is the best way to assess a child’s ability -it can simply reward exam technique not knowledge or passion for a subject, and produce a lottery where the winners are those lucky enough to have a good day.
    It depresses me to see the Lib Dems becoming a party that views falling exam performance at GCSE and A-Level as anything other than a failure after two years of government, and which appears to be making decisions without any evidence that they will not simply make things worse.

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 4:26pm

    @Alex Macfie “I’ve never understood why the multiple-resit issue was never resolved by limiting resits to one per module”
    I wonder if a key point here is deciding what is the purpose of the education and examination system. If it is to demonstrate that children have successfully been taught and reached a particular standard, why does it matter if it took one or more attempts for the child to get there, as long as they did indeed reach that level. Equally, if a modular system allows children to learn and demonstrate that they have acquired a level of skill or knowledge, why would we want to get rid of that.

  • Peter, you can achieve a “practice effect” by taking and retaking tests etc. This would not be equivalent to genuine underpinning knowledge. That is why what you suggest would not always be appropriate.

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 5:29pm

    In some ways I would be happier if we applied the same logic

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 5:39pm

    In some ways I would be happier if we applied the same logic to driving: there would be far more room on the roads for me. But we do not. We allow drivers to repeat the test until they demonstrate the required standard. How much more important is it that we find a way to ensure that children are helped through the education system and achieve their full potential rather than labelling them a failure after a one shot pass or fail or exam?
    I don’t pretend that it is easy to find an optimal solution to this: it needs thought, analysis, consultation and debate. My concern is that Gove and Clegg are pretending they have found a simple fix.

  • David Allen 17th Sep '12 - 5:39pm

    The worst thing about modular exams is that, if not controlled e.g. as Alex Macfie suggests to prevent multiple resits, they lead to obsessive polishing and repolishing the same narrow range of knowledge, resulting in higher grades and lower real achievement.

    My son (now 30) did the last non-modular A levels. My daughter (now 27) did them modular. My son spent at least one more term (out of the 6 terms in the sixth forms) than my daughter did studying new material, rather than revising old material. He was consequently much better prepared for university. She found the modular A level work much more tiring and boring.

  • Liberal Eye 17th Sep '12 - 5:46pm

    Experience of the grotesque split between the old grammars and secondary modern schools in the days when pupils’ futures were largely decided on the luck of a single not-very-good exam has created an allegic reaction amongst most LDs to any suggestion of a two-tier secondary system.

    That is perfectly understandable. But I have yet to find anyone who can satisfactorily explain how a one-size-fits-all exam at 16+ (with or without course work) can possibly work across the whole spectrum – from those who will go on to become rocket scientists to those who will become labourers. An exam that works for the former will demotivate the latter by being totally unachievable while one that works for the latter will bore the former rigid and fail to prepare them for university.

    The only way to square this circle is to use the same name for what are, in reality, different exams. If this has advantages beyond allowing politicians to boast of improved pass rates year by year they are not obvious and are offset by lack of transparency to all concerned which has very real and damaging consequences.

    So, very unfashionably in these circles, I would support a move to a two or even three-tier system provided that (a) there are tertiary qualifications that require the less academic qualification for entry to ensure it is not seen as (or taught as) a ‘poor relation’ but as a valuable end in itself. (b) That there is an upgrade path from lower to higher level qualifications so that those who want to move to a more academic approach can do so (perhaps as mature students). (c) That choice between paths is at the pupils’ (and their parents’) discretion and not by 11+ or equivalent but that students who could not keep up would have to transfer to a less demanding course.

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 5:46pm

    I would also suggest that a single exam is not a good way to test a genuine underpinning knowledge and understanding, especially when supporters of change exaggerate the importance of rote-learning the names of monarchs, etc. Indeed, I suspect that the best way to assess such things is through course-work: for example an independent project allowing students to demonstrate their enthusiasm and ability to research beyond the restrictions of a curriculum, but I accept that this would be very difficult to incorporate. I fear that we will have a system that assesses children on their ability to sit exams, and little more.

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 5:51pm

    @Liberal Eye
    My son sat a GCSE in Further Mathematics. Perhaps, the current system could simply be tweaked to include Further English, Further History, etc. to stretch more capable students with an extended curriculum.

  • Liberal Eye 17th Sep '12 - 6:17pm

    @ Peter Watson
    I’m only familiar with Further Maths at A level (my brother did it, I didn’t).

    The way I think of this is that someone who wants to be a rocket scientist (or similar) really does need to get a good grounding in algebra up to and including a fair bit of calculus by 16+ or he/she will be left far behind what Chinese/Indian/Etc students know by the time they get to university and we delude ourselves if we think UK can compete in the knowledge economy.

    Conversely, a lad who wants from an early age (with parental support) to follow his dad into the family building business really doesn’t need much algebra, certainly not calculus and the chances are that attempting to thrust it down his throat will be entirely counter-productive. What he does need is to be completely comfortable, inter alia, with measures of all sorts so this implies a rather different syllabus. If he later decides (perhaps inspired by a teacher who uncovers a latent talent) that he does after all want to go to university then he should be able to mug up on the topics he didn’t study. In practice I suspect that this will not be a hugely popular path but it does provide for late developers of all sorts including those whose family background for one reason or another made study as a teenager very difficult.

  • We need to study the small print but, in principle, I’m in favour of this reform. There is a decent run-in period before teaching begins in 2015 and, as with the introduction of GCSE in 1986, I dare say any proposals will subjected to scrutiny by professional bodies.

    Media talk about re-introducing ‘O-levels’ is misleading. GCSE examinations are assessed differently and “higher standards” does not necessarily mean the new examination will be marked in the same way as ‘O-Level’. I have taught English and Religious Studies at CSE, O-level and GCSE in both maintained and independent schools and, in my opinion, GCSE requires radical reform. It is simply too easy for a reasonably bright pupil. Without reform we will end up with a two-tier system because many schools (mainly in the Independent Sector) are switching or considering switching to the International GCSE which, it is argued, is more rigorous. (I have no personal experience of teaching this examination.) Different examinations in maintained and independent sectors would be a serious educational divide.

    The conservative teaching unions are invariably negative about anything which seems like criticism of the status quo and Liberal democrats should not automatically follow their lead.

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 6:34pm

    @Liberal Eye
    Further Maths is also one of the A-levels my son has just started, and I know that some schools offered it when I was an A-Level student (83-85). An O-level in Additional Maths (AO) was available back then.
    GCSE Further Maths allows students with mathematical ability to go beyond a general-purpose curriculum and to be rewarded with an additional GCSE. I think this is far better than trying to fit enough maths into a single course and examination to achieve the same level of teaching and assessment for all abilities. I think the same approach would be equally suitable for all subjects. Indeed, on reflection science teaching and assessment seems similar, as there is a range of options for different levels of ability and interest, and in English I guess Eng Literature allows those with more ability to go beyond the more basic requirements of Eng Language. Perhaps the problem with CSE and GCE was that it forced segregation at age 14, whereas Further GCSEs would allow more capable children to move ahead at a later time on a subject-by-subject basis.

  • Peter Hayes 17th Sep '12 - 6:51pm

    Rigour is such a problem. When I took A level in 1965 our Physics teacher, who retired that year, predicted what topics we should spend the most revision time on. He was about 90% right.. True rigour tests understanding not memory and, an experiment in the University of Manchester when I was in my second year (luckily the test was on the first years!) was never repeated because of the failure rate. It was an open book test to get students to explain which ‘inventions’ would never work .

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Sep '12 - 11:34pm

    Liberal Eye

    Conversely, a lad who wants from an early age (with parental support) to follow his dad into the family building business really doesn’t need much algebra, certainly not calculus and the chances are that attempting to thrust it down his throat will be entirely counter-productive.

    Oh dear me, here we go again, the old “Maths is useless” argument. Don’t builders ever have to deal with things that slant (i.e. trigonometry), rates of change (i.e. calculus) or things like calculating how many buckets of paint is needed to cover a wall (algebra)? And if the lad’s going into the family business, isn’t he going to have to work the budgets, take out loans, deal with financial projections and the like?

    One of the biggest problems we face in this country is too many kids turning away from bothering with Maths because they have been told “it is useless” only to find that by doing so they have cut themselves off from a chance of progress in half the university subjects going. A-level Maths is necessary for most decent university science and engineering departments, and if they don’t insist on it the only reason they don’t us because they can’t afford to as there aren’t enough applicants with it, not because they don’t value it. Same applies to most Economics and Business departments. Also things like multi media and graphics – underneath the fancy images, there’s maths.

    One benefit of more people having at least a rudimentary understanding of calculus would be an end to that comment one used to hear “How can they say inflation is coming down when prices are still going up?”.

  • Sorry, Peter Hayes, I had no idea “rigour” had a specific educational meaning – could you explain to this bozo precisely (rigorously even) what it means? You’d probably better check with Gove before you give your answer.

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 12:27am

    @Peter Hayes
    One of my best exam results at university was one in which I correctly identified which half of the subject I could get away with ignoring. I may only have understood half of the course, but I aced that exam.
    Over the years (O-level, A-level, traditional university, Open University) I have benefitted from good natural exam technique, and I thought that if I ever became a teacher that is what I would emphasise. I believe that passion and knowledge about a subject is great in the real world, but only of secondary importance in an exam. I suspect that in the years since I left school, league tables and other pressures mean that pushing exam technique would no longer be my unique selling point as schools and teachers have been doing that. Gove’s proposals seem to be simply ensuring that exam technique and teaching to the test will be more important than ever.

  • “One benefit of more people having at least a rudimentary understanding of calculus would be an end to that comment one used to hear “How can they say inflation is coming down when prices are still going up?”.”

    With respect, you really don’t need a rudimentary understanding of calculus to do that, any more than you need algebra to work out “how many buckets of paint is needed to cover a wall”. Arithmetic would be the thing for that.

  • Mr Arthur Cook 18th Sep '12 - 3:55am

    A more precise headline might be “Gove releases poorly thought out proposals in a hurry to distract people from the GCSE marking fiasco whilst Nick Clegg holds his coat”,
    So what our children are to be subject to is even more chaos and disruption up to the election in 2015 when the Coalition “government” will be booted out and then an incoming Labour education secretary with truly be able to use that oft used phrase “the mess left by the previous administration”.

  • Liberal Eye 18th Sep '12 - 2:40pm

    @ Matthew Huntbach

    Your comment would have had more force if I had actually said “Maths is useless” or anything remotely like it. The context was the contrasted needs of those near the top and the bottom of the ability spectrum – and specifically here the lower end.

    Yet you go on to emphasise how essential maths is for many university courses. Well, yes. I agree – but segueing into a discusssion of how students need maths to keep their options open at university only strengthens my long-held suspicion that many in the educational establishment forget that a substantial majority of kids will never go to university. An uncomfortable minority leave school functionally illiterate and innumerate having been unable to access the curriculum for the last few years of their school career. Would you really have them forced to do calculus? These youngsters deserve to be offered courses that address their actual needs and are not just ‘university-lite’ and in practice that means arithmetic rather than anything fancier (and the equivalent in other subjects).

    The context was also specifically school as opposed to post-school – for instance apprenticeships. If a lad who hated school (and perhaps had domestic complications that made it worse), later discovers a need to do trigonometry or some such in the context of an apprenticeship he will learn it better and faster than he ever would have done at school.

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