Michael Gove is not universally popular. Mention his name to a teacher and it’s likely they’ll react with the face of a cat biting a lemon. This reaction makes Gove ‘box office’ with our news media. To read politics our dumbed-down news consumers need pantomime villains. In the eyes of Fleet Street Gove’s Evil Wizard is storming centre stage and kicking Lansley’s Wicked Stepmother into the wings. Oh yes he is.
Every pantomime villain needs a cunning plan. The Twitter-wisdom, which the Guardian and TES follow rather than lead, is that Gove has leaned on the Exam Boards to lower grades so that more schools fall under floor-targets. They’ll then be forcibly turned into Academies. This will lead to a future of Blofeld-led corporations syphoning the education budget away from the careful stewardship of LEAs and into private coffers to then fund the redevelopment of the sports fields they’ve just sold to themselves into branches of Waitrose. The evidence is out there. Join-the-dots. The grades have lowered, the sports fields are being sold at an unprecedented rate. The man must be stopped. Right?
Oh come on. Get a grip. Gove is no puppet-master. Yes, he’s single minded and does seem to ‘work around’ as much as ‘work with’ stakeholders. But he can’t even rely on his people to count to 31 much less engineer ‘The Grand Conspiracy’. You can only join-the-dots-up in that way if you first sex-them-up. Sexing-up Gove stories has been an Olympian endeavour over the last fortnight. Take the playing-fields storm. Selling at an ‘Unprecedented rate’? Even if the sports field figure is 31 they’re selling 15 a year compared with their predecessors yearly average of around 20. Whilst every sale may or may not be a tragedy, to describe it as happening at an ‘unprecedented rate’ is an outright lie. It’s happening at the slowest rate for 30 years.
I suspect the truth behind these exam results will be equally mundane, boring and ignored to keep the pantomime rhetoric in play. This idea that downgrading is a ploy to make borderline floor-target Schools look worse is a nonsense. Don’t forget Academies enter exactly the same exams. Any downgrading puts the same pressure on them. They’re just as exposed in the same league tables. If anything they’re under more pressure to raise attainment quickly and under more scrutiny. Other things being equal, to introduce downgrading will make the Academy program look like it is failing to deliver. That would be in direct contradiction to the desired ends of our supposed ‘Grand Conspiracy’.
Almost certainly the exam boards will have recognised that grade inflation was an issue people were gunning for and then taken the call to sort it themselves. It seems the AQA in particular has gone a wee bit further than the others down this track. Now I share the demand that the same effort and score in an exam of the same difficulty should be rewarded with the same grade and not be variable depending on exam date. That’s why I’m miffed that my own GCSE results are considerably lower than they would be had I taken them this January. I took mine over 20 years ago. Those kids on the wrong side of the C/D borderline this year would have been on the wrong side of it in 2010 and every year before.
That said, reading the anecdotes from teachers there’s a genuine issue in the way students had their expectations managed. And the students themselves are blameless in that. Had the change not come ‘in year’ and been properly signalled to teachers then that bit at least could and should have been avoided. Conspiracy? No. Cock-up? A little bit. British policy development was ever thus.
I’m no blind Gove fan-boy. I think some of his views on curriculum are plain wrong. It’s as if he asked his Mum what she did at school and has decided that’s what kids should still do now. The idea of ensuring rigour in GCSEs is sound, but the idea that there can only be rigour in traditional subjects doesn’t logically follow. Raise the bar on subjects like ICT and add rigour to them! As an employer I can assure Mr Gove that a kid with a credible ICT GCSE or, if such thing existed, even a rigorous media studies qualification would be more use to me than a kid with Latin.
A side effect of this focus on the 1.5% fall in English (and 0.4% fall overall) is it distracts us from the great August tradition of praising success. Ironically, given this wider context recognising success where we see it is more deserved than ever this time. There are schools out there who had a great year and moved forward without a grade inflation nudge. You wont have heard their head teachers on the radio complaining. There’s one school just down the road from me that against the odds increased its headline 5 A*-C GCSEs rate by 10%. They can be very proud. It’s customary to say that such improvements are down to quality of teaching and a sterling effort from the pupils themselves. This year, for the first time in a long time even the cynics will believe it. And that is no bad thing.