More is less, “reform” is worse

Malcolm is generally unconvinced by the London Evening Standard. It is the last man standing of the once-several London evening papers. When it was in the Daily Mail stable and edited by Veronica Wadley, it was so flea-bitten Tory it was the Evening Boris. The newly-appointed editor, Sarah Sands (who is a close follower of Geordie Gregg, now back at the Mail on Sunday) allegedly got the job after Boris Johnson’s personal canvassing — so we watch and wait.

Even so, Malcolm acknowledges the paper occasionally hits the mark, often on social issues.

During the editorship of Max Hastings (that was 1996 to 2002), there were numerous occasions when Malcolm found himself nodding approval at opinion pieces. One expression comes to his mind, though he freely admits it is a recollection rather than a precise quotation:

The best asset any school can have is a tradition of application and aspiration quietly passed down from one generation of students to the next.


Then in yesterday’s edition there was this, as one of a miscellany of comment pieces by Richard Godwin. One has to search hard to locate it on line, so here it comes, verbatim:

Gove tinkers, teachers despair, pupils suffer

Everyone knows A-levels are getting easier. It’s one of those truisms. In the Sixties, candidates were required to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, compose Chaucerian epics. These days, they get a B simply for being able to hold a pencil. At least they did, until pencils were banned (health and safety). They probably do it all on Wikipedia now.Yes, like the idea that society is becoming more permissive, recreational drug use is increasing, and Michael Gove is a breath of fresh air, it is one of those truisms that isn’t necessarily true.

Sure, the number of A grades awarded has increased over the past three decades — but it doesn’t necessarily follow that exams are easier. What has happened is that exams have become all important, so all resources have become focused on passing them. Pupils are taught assessment criteria instead of reasoning skills; they are given syllabuses instead of knowledge; and instead of an education, they get a grade.

So A-levels have become a system of box-ticking and hoop-jumping in which everyone has colluded for too long. Gove is wise to this and has announced he wants the elite universities, rather than government-endorsed exam boards, to set exams. The idea is to end grade-inflation, drive standards and ensure universities spend less time, say, teaching French students how to write French. 

I’d welcome any drive to make our system more rigorous, but it’s worth returning to cause and effect. The reason we have a grade-bubble in the first place is not because of easy-peasy exams. It’s more to do with Gove’s own department.

Every Education Secretary we’ve had — 10 in the past 20 years — thinks they know better than the one before. They’re only capable of viewing education through their own experience and so they tinker according to prejudice. They change the syllabus; they fiddle with AS-levels, modules, assessment criteria; they devise some new measure to prove their own success. Meanwhile teachers become neurotic trying to keep up — and pupils just want someone to tell them what they’re supposed to be doing this week.

Gove is arrogant to suppose that his particular tinkerings are any less disruptive than any other minister’s.  Allowing Oxford and Cambridge to set exams may improve things for the more able pupils but Gove is really just imposing his own prejudices, which happen to be towards elitism.

He’s also a hypocrite. As part of his “mission” to reduce the role of government, he is promising more academies and free schools — which are free of local authority control but directly accountable to his own department. So he is fine with decreasing the control of other governmental bodies, as long as he’s increasing his own powers.

The best thing he could do? Start with 100 lines: education happens in the classroom, not Whitehall.

Malcolm goes with most of that, notably The reason we have a grade-bubble in the first place is not because of easy-peasy exams. It’s more to do with Gove’s own department.

It needs constant repetition, because nobody understands. The core problem of grade inflation stems from a change of evaluation that arrived on the back of Kenneth Baker’s National Curriculum and the 1988 Education Act. It is, therefore, an essential piece of technocratic Thatcherism.

Until then assessment was largely based on a kind of “banding”. The perceived top 10% were Grade A. A “pass mark” was somewhere between a third and a quarter of the measured ability range. Grades were allocated on the assumption that, with a huge annual population of examination candidates, the proportions of “ability” didn’t greatly change from year to year, so the marking was adjusted to acknowledge this.

Then came Baker’s “attainment levels”. Lists of trigger “attainments” were codified into ten-point scales. A C-grade at GCSE meant the candidate had satisfied at level seven of these scales. Tick the box, get the candy.

Not surprisingly teachers taught to the scales. As Godwin has it:  Pupils are taught assessment criteria instead of reasoning skills; they are given syllabuses instead of knowledge; and instead of an education, they get a grade.

As long as assessment is criteria-based, rather than the older (and, admittedly, somewhat subjective) norm-based assessment, the same process remains.

Now, it’s right up to the top shelf (Malcolm’s fiction is sorted alphabetically by author, and even chronologically within author — except the piles on the floor, of course) to revisit Lucky Jim:

Education is one thing and instruction, however worthy, necessary and incidentally or monetarily educative, another.

Though that’s from The King’s English.


1 Comment

Filed under Conservative Party policy., culture, education, fiction, London, schools, Tories.

One response to “More is less, “reform” is worse

  1. Pingback: Of mice and intolerance | Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service

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