Dan Rogerson MP writes…How we reformed GCSEs

I suspect there are precious few people out there who are not aware that Michael Gove wasn’t entirely happy with the current state of the GCSE system.

You’re probably also aware that when he first suggested he wasn’t happy with the current system, Nick Clegg, Joan Walmsley and I wasted no time in telling him that Liberal Democrats, a party who believe in social mobility, would not tolerate a return to a two tier education system.

What you may not be aware of is just how the two parties have been working since then to find a compromise that combines the shared objective of greater rigour with the Liberal Democrat commitment to social mobility.

The new policy represents coalition government at its best and painstaking hours have gone in to negotiating a compromise which brings together the best ideas of both parties and represents the best deal for pupils and parents.

Like the GCSE, the new qualification, the English Baccalaureate Certificate, will be available to the overwhelming majority of children at Key Stage Four. There is going to be no return to a two tier O-Level/CSE education system on the Lib Dems’ watch.

The Department of Education are consulting on ending the tiered papers which pupils from poorer backgrounds remain more likely to sit than their wealthier peers, and which cannot be rewarded with higher than a grade C. Unlike the old O-Level there will also be no cap on the number of pupils who can achieve a top grade.

The coalition is proposing to introduce a single exam board in the core academic subjects that form part of the school accountability system – English, Maths, Science, Humanities and Languages. This is to end the “race to the bottom” whereby exam boards have been competing by offering schools the easiest exams in these subjects.

The two coalition parties have worked together in identifying a problem and working towards a solution.

Liberal Democrats have also insisted on a period of general consultation, to ensure that teachers, parents and people from the education and business sectors will have the chance to contribute their expertise.

We can then move towards implementing important changes which will ensure the best outcomes for all students – not just the privileged few.

* Dan Rogerson is the Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I thought we had learnt that defending compromised policies – rather than saying ‘it is the best we could get’ – was not advisable. This is not liberal, and the utterly conservative choice of subjects is flawed and not supported by the evidence cited. I had no idea that it could possibly be considered liberal to define a set list of ‘core’ subjects (outside perhaps maths and English) and if the idea was to keep an education broad at age 14-16, this does the opposite.

    Where is creativity? Where is all that stuff we saw at the Olympics? 10% of our export market is going to be completely undermined and pupils are going to be forced to narrow options. All this does, is shift one ‘perverse incentive’ to create another.

  • Dan, I agree with with Jon on his view that presentation is an important issue, and that as a consequence, it meant Nick signing up to views I genuinely hope he doesn’t possess. But it does go beyond presentation, into the core of the proposals, which as on many issues are moving in a direction AWAY from mainstream Lib Dem ideas and ideals. Of course I welcome no two tier system, and I have been somewhat dubious about the tiered exams, since my own sons were involved in that system 25 years ago, soon after they were introduced. However, there does need to be a way of crediting knowledge and understanding at lower levels than some others may achieve. There is, and always has been, quite a debate around this issue.

    On the issue of modules, they are very useful, and to countenance their widespread abolition because of issues around multiple resits and use of coursework seems wrong. On coursework – by outlawing this in all sorts of areas, you downgrade the importance of hard continuous work, and upgrade the importance of being able to go into an exam room and perform one-off tasks depending on good memory, and a strict ability to control nerves. This is wrong, and may even, in some circles be construed as indirect discrimination against girls, who often do better under a continuous assessment regime.

    To characterise Exam Board choice as “A race to the bottom” is to say the least OTT – it is a practice which has been going on for, perhaps, 60 years at least, probably 80! It may be a good idea, but having different Boards can introduce some diversity, so I don’t suppose the arguments are all on one side!

    I am quite convinced that the Tory Party is not “at one” about Michael Gove’s changes, and I would have thought party people should have brought others in the HoC into discussion to slow the whole thing down before announcing changes which seem to owe more to Gove’s biases than educational “fact” or opinion.

    This announcement at this time could look like Mr Gove trying to divert attention to the very embarrassing muck up going on with this year’s GCSE results – and it looked as if the joint statement was trying to achieve this by blaming long term factors rather than an attempt to push the results in a favoured direction by indirect pressure in the short term. Please tell me our party leadership doesn’t believe that one?

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Sep '12 - 10:32am

    Dan, this is a very disappointing response . Are you really expecting Liberal Democrats to accept for a moment that the structure of this EBacc represents a broad and balanced curriculum to be accessed by every child?

    As you are also someone who is passionate about the role and status of the academic humanity, (Religious Studies), NOT included in the EBacc, for reasons that are spurious at best, I am still more aghast at your apparent enthusiasm.

    If this represents months of painstaking, hard-fought negotiations, then I think the Liberal Democrats obviously came out second best. Gove, Truss and Cameron must be laughing into their glasses of Champagne.

    @ Jon Hunt – I really do not agree that this is a matter of presentation – it’s substance as well.

    As Dan Rogerson will know, as a student of Theology – Thomas Aquinas distinguished between the properties of existing things – between substance and accidents (appearances). Now there is a 12th century complex abstract concept that deserves a place on its own in the ‘traditional’ core.

    It’s clear to me that both the substance and accidents of exam policy have been mangled into a curious hybrid-Tory shape.

  • Peter Watson 19th Sep '12 - 1:34pm

    @Dan “Unlike the old O-Level there will also be no cap on the number of pupils who can achieve a top grade.”
    Are you sure? Toby Young thought otherwise earlier this week, and there is much discussion of norm-referencing versus criterion-referencing (I’ve learnt a lot recently!). The only link to this I could see in the consultation document was that imposing a single exam would mean no student’s grade would be capped by the exam paper they sat. This is not the same as saying it won’t be a system where only the top x% are given the top grade.

  • Alex Sabine 19th Sep '12 - 5:23pm

    So greater rigour is a shared objective, but social mobility is a purely Lib Dem one…? I doubt this sort of sanctimoniousness cuts much ice with the public, whether they support or oppose the exam changes.

    At least in his personal back story, Michael Gove is a better exemplar of social mobility than Nick Clegg or indeed most other Lib Dem MPs. And whatever you think of his policies, I think it’s churlish to deny that his reforming zeal stems from a frustration with the barriers to advancement for bright kids from poor backgrounds in the current system.

    Clegg presumably accepts the sincerity of Gove’s motives and agenda, or he wouldn’t have co-written a piece that says: “And we share a vision: a genuinely open society. We are both angered by the scale of inequality and frustrated at the barriers a class-ridden nation places in the way of real social mobility.”

  • Ian Wallace 19th Sep '12 - 7:06pm

    Living in Scotland I am pleased to say the retrograde changes in the exam system proposed for young people in England by the coalition government will not apply to young people I work with.
    While the new exam proposals may not apply in Scotland they just confirm to the people of Scotland that the coalition is adopting policies and a direction of travel they and have rejected.
    The proposed exam policies pander to the Tory press and right wing Tory members. They seem to have been introduced as party dogma rather than to raise education achievement. Policies that seem to have more to do with the last century rather than the future. They are fundamentally anti Liberal.
    We could have supported and promoted the ideas put forward by the Tomlinson Report. Ideas developed by educationalists not politicians which are now abandoned.

    I supported the party’s participation in the coalition, with many reservations. The policies now being supported by the party were not in the agreement and will not serve us well in the future.

    We should have seen these policies coming when the Orange book was published. Its time the party members made the leadership accountable for their decisions.

  • Tony Dawson 19th Sep '12 - 7:40pm

    “The two coalition parties have worked together in identifying a problem and working towards a solution.”

    No they haven’t. At best, a dozen people have done.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Sep '12 - 12:08pm

    A big part of the problem is that when a compromise is reached – and we know given the balance in Parliament that any compromise will be well towards what the Conservatives want rather than what the Liberal Democrats would want if they had complete power – those responsible for our party’s publicity seem to think the next thing they must do is go out and issue some press release or get some leading figure to praise the resulting policy as if it’s our absolute ideal, what we Liberal Democrats had always wanted, what we had been fighting for all these years we were in opposition.

    Can’t you lot at the top see how bad that comes across? Why is it that you have to act like ad-men selling some consumer product, where it has to be promoted as super-duper wonderful, best thing since sliced bread etc? Well, maybe this does work when selling baked beans or whatever, but can’t you see it doesn’t seem to work when selling political parties, especially junior coalition partners?

    Sorry, but this shiny super-duper it’s all wonderful approach is just so offputting to the ordinary person. Why must top politicians and their image-making advisers do it? Why can’t you admit that politics is about compromise, finding a balance, doing things which aren’t everyone’s ideal but come somewhere in between? Isn’t that why people get put off politics, accusing all politicians of being liars, because you seem unable to do that?

    It is even worse for us as the junior coalition partner, because the super-duper it’s all wonderful approach makes us look as if we have become converted to what is essentially Tory policy. We were told at the start we must show coalitions work, but this is doing the opposite. It is suggesting coalitions do not work because they must mean the junior partner gives up most of what they believe in. What instead we should have been doing from the start is making it clear that we gave our backing to this coalition because we recognised the need for a stable government, and this was the only possible one resulting from how people voted and how those votes got turned into MPs by our electoral system in May 2010. We don’t have to say it is all super-duper wonderful, we can surely say it is very far from our ideal, but we accept we have to go along with how people voted. For sure, if instead we sat there voting against everything the Tories proposed because it wasn’t quite what we wanted, we would be accused of being silly point-pickers, stopping the government governing for obscure reasons. It’s compromise, but if there were more LibDems and fewer Tories, it’d be less of a compromise that was Tory. Why can’t we say that?

  • Nigel Quinton 20th Sep '12 - 1:55pm

    What Jon, Matthew, Helen and Tim13 said. Its a brave attempt to justify the work that has undoubtedly gone into this in Westminster, but it is politically crass to expect either LibDem activists or the general public to welcome this policy as the answer to their prayers, and to think about voting LibDem again. Does anyone in the Westminster bubble actually talk to people outside before they decide their PR strategy?

    B+ for effort, E- for presentation.

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