The education system, and particularly its assessment, is a bit of a mess. This has been clear to me since I started teaching, 4 years ago. Grade boundaries fluctuate, sometimes wildly. The difference between a C in one qualification and another can be huge. Many exams are an unrealistic way of assessing people. The number of resits that can be taken has become absurd. Teaching to the test is rife. Grade inflation has become a joke.
I can completely understand Michael Gove's desire to change things. I just don't agree with all the changes he is planning to make. I don't agree with all of them...though I do agree with some of them.
First, a bit of background. A year or two ago, the English Baccalaureate was introduced. This is an award gained by achieving grade C or higher in English, Maths, Science, a humanity and a language. Achieving the EBac would be a sign of general all-round academic ability. Less academic subjects such as drama and DT were not included in the EBac but are still assessed as normal GCSEs. This sounded (and still sounds) like a good idea - essentially, pupils do GCSEs in the same way as before, and there is a way of identifying the all-round academic pupils by seeing who achieved the EBac. The problem is that schools can be assessed not only on the magic '% of 5 A*-C including English and Maths', but on the % of pupils achieving the EBac. In my school, this led the management to look at our EBac target (e.g. 65%), then find the 65% of pupils most likely to achieve the EBac, and force them to take those subjects. It restricted choice and pushed kids into subjects they didn't want to take. (Note 1: pupils subject choice fuelled by school targets and results)
In the last week, Gove has proposed the English Baccalaureate Certificate - a new qualification to replace GCSEs in some subjects (English, Maths and Science to start with). It is designed to be more rigorous, with no coursework or modules. It will be assessed by a single exam at the end of year 11. The idea behind increasing the rigour stems, I believe, from the desire to stop ludicrous grade inflation. A GCSE grade C is worth less now than it was ten years ago, simply because more people achive grade C now than they did ten years ago. Exams are (or at least they were until about a year ago) easier than they used to be (that is not a myth). This desire to stop grade inflation is a good one. More rigour is needed. Another way that Gove plans to reduce grade inflation is to have only one exam board, to prevent the current situation of exam boards competing to offer slightly easier qualifications than their competitors, so that schools will choose their qualification and improve their results. Having only one exam board is a good idea (though not a difficult one to come up with). (Note 2: grade inflation due at least in part to schools competing for better results)
However, removing coursework and modules is a mistake. Admittedly, we need fewer modules than we currently have. At the moment, pupils sit exams in November, January, March and June. Mental. But stopping modules altogether is a step too far. As is removing coursework. I can't put it better than this quote from Liz Brimacombe on the BBC website:
"My final comment is that doing a limited amount of work all year and then cramming like mad for a three-hour exam (as was the case in the O-level days) is not a skill relevant to most jobs. Having to produce quality work, under deadlines, sometimes project based throughout a year is far more applicable in today's world."
Traditional-style exams are not a good way to assess pupils. In no real-life situation do you have to do something like that. The ability to produce good coursework, however, is a skill transferable to the real world. This does not necessarily mean there is no place for exams - it is important to assess what pupils understand by themselves, without reference materials.
Another feature of Gove's new plan is to remove the two-tier system of Higher and Foundation courses, because Foundation courses, while easier, have a maximum grade of C, and could be seen to prevent aspiration. A good sentiment, but it is countered by the idea of more rigour and a traditional end-of-course exam, which will make it more difficult to achieve the top grades. Under this new system, less academic pupils could find themselves unable to get good grades. Gove's new system appears to cater for only certain types of pupils - the academic ones who are, probably, the minority. Classic Tory.
However, the fact that this new system will only benefit a few is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that as qualifications get, basically, more difficult for the majority (no resits, no coursework, more rigour etc), schools will be under even more pressure to deliver results. Emphasis on exams, teaching to the test, and exam pressure will all increase, and the main reason will not be to enable pupils to do as well as they can (though it should be). The main reason will be so that schools get the best results that they can. Because, sadly, the thing that drives almost everything in education is league tables.
Schools strive to improve results each year, because the better their results in the broadsheets at the end of August, or the better results they can put in their prospectus, the more year 6 applications they will receive, the more money they will receive, and the more staff will want to work there. This desire to improve results (a) is ludicrous, and (b) drives many other things.
It is ludicrous for a variety of reasons. Grade inflation for one. The fact that some years are cleverer than others for two. Varying exam boards, varying difficulties of exams, the fact that some schools have a catchment that predisposes pupils to do well at school, and so on.
It also drives many other things - the courses that pupils are allowed to take being a huge one. Targets that teachers have to set for themselves each year. Which pupils get extra help for coursework. Grade inflation over the years, as exams steadily become easier. Teaching to the test. Pupils breaking down with stress. Staff breaking down with stress.
There are some good things about Gove's proposals - one exam board, fewer modules. There are plenty of bad things - no coursework, no modules, only benefits a minority of pupils. But it simply masks, and is a response to, the competitiveness between schools to out-achieve each other.
I don't have the answer at the moment. I do have some ideas, which mostly revolved around more teacher assessment of pupils, moderated by external examiners (as mentioned above, traditional exams are not a realistic method of assessment). But I don't get paid a six-figure salary to come up with the answer. That would be Mr Gove's job. And so far, he has failed - I'd probably give him grade E.