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Thursday, February 07, 2013 

The Gove level has been retired in favour of the Gove CSE.

There is, it seems, a method to Michael Gove's madness.  How you gain support for your reforms to GCSEs is to start off by claiming you're going to bring back O-Levels, and when everyone, including your coalition partner objects to this turning back of the clock, you claim that all you intended to do was introduce something entirely new, even if it shares the name of the English baccalaureate. 

When everyone then says this is equally retrograde, including the Commons education select committee, you then present your rowing back as a mere tweaking of your original plan.  Meanwhile, in the build up to the announcement of the u-turn, you continue to act as though everyone other than you is in wrong, including attributing the most base motives to your opponents. Labour, Gove said, didn't want working class kids to rise above their station, while the unions have long been dismissed as being comfortable with failure.

If any other minister were admitting they had got it wrong and were now making changes which on the whole look as though they're reasonable rather than motivated by ideology and radical change for the sake of it, it might just have been possible to welcome it rather than snigger.  As it's Gove, who comes a close second to George Osborne in the smarm stakes and has spent his entire time as education secretary acting as though he's infallible, you can't help but bathe fully in the latent schadenfreude.

Moreover, it's doubly enjoyable as the mooted reforms now look with a few major exceptions as though they might just lead to some improvements across the board rather than just at stretching the brightest.  Gove is still clearly obsessed with academic subjects at the expense of vocational training, and would rather the likes of art, music and drama didn't exist, but let's not carp too much yet.  Especially interesting is the apparent intention to do away with foundation and higher papers, whereby currently those entered for the foundation exams can only get a maximum grade of a C.  In theory a good idea as it will ensure those who are between the margins of a D/C/B can get the higher grade, it remains to be seen whether this could also have the effect of further limiting the chances of those expected to get no better than an E.

Definitely a step forward is Gove's proposed refining of league tables, which will no longer simply measure schools by the number of pupils getting 5 "good" GCSEs at C or above and instead focus on English and maths, as well as a "value added" measure, which should see more emphasis put on subjects other than those of Gove's favourites.  Unfortunately, arguably the one redeeming feature of Gove's intention to bring back O-Levels, the plan to have just one exam board setting the papers for each subject has been dropped, supposedly because of EU rules on competition.  Whether that's true or the boards have kicked up a major fuss themselves is unclear, but it does mean there's still the potential for the boards to compete as to who can offer the easiest paper, as seems to have been the case in recent years.  Allegations of dumbing down have undoubtedly been overstated, not least by Gove himself, and such a change would have helped put an end to the chance of it taking place.

As for the rest, it's a very mixed bag.  Gove's new curriculum certainly doesn't inspire confidence that we aren't going backwards.  I don't have a problem with a renewed focus on spelling and grammar, as long as it isn't taken to Lynne Truss levels of pedantry for the sake of it (no one cares whether you get your whos or whoms right unless you have to), it's more the emphasis on being able to name rivers or recite poetry by heart.  Especially on poetry, you either have a love of it or frankly, you don't.  Call me a philistine, but The Wasteland does absolutely nothing for me.  A firm knowledge of Shakespeare, on the other hand, beyond just the Macbeths and Romeo and Juliets etc can be spectacularly beneficial.  On history, one can't help but worry just what a "clear narrative of British progress" means in practice.  At present, you learn next to nothing of the age of British Empire, or indeed much other than the usual Kings and the various revolutions, industrial, French and if you're very lucky, the Russian.  And of course, Nazi Germany.  Heroes and heroines are all very well, but which ones, and to the detriment of whom?

Lastly, also remaining is Gove's bizarre distaste for modular learning.  If his apparent hatred for it is purely down to how you can resit exams repeatedly, then limit the number of resits.  Yes, there is the potential with modules for the knowledge acquired during that course to be replaced when the next one is moved onto, yet surely that's a better system than one where a final exam is likely to pick on just a few of the topics touched on over a 2 year period, meaning teachers will be pushed ever further into trying to discover what's going to be on this year's paper.  If modules are fine for universities, why are they not good enough for schools?

Vastly improved as Gove's plans are, his real legacy for education has already been achieved.  By pushing every school to become an academy, regardless of whether the governors or the parents want to, he's imposed a system that was meant to help the most disadvantaged into one primed to turn schooling into a business.  Free schools meanwhile seem designed to entrench just the inequalities that academies were meant to lessen.  Today's decision to keep GCSEs will be a mere scratch compared to the damage Gove's structural reforms have already wrought.

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