After a summer of loathing, the coalition is attempting, after a cabinet reshuffle, to re-align and reinforce their bonds. A political no brainer seeing as we are still far away enough from the next General Election for both parties to attempt to reconcile in the hope that they might emerge from their tenure in government with some credit. The problem is, the coalition’s politics has had and continues to have a very real impact on our present and our future as a nation.
This week the two flagship, pre-conference feathers in the Tory cap are the proposed reform of welfare, Universal Credit, and the more contentious reform of the GCSEs. The former is under fire both externally and internally for being a bit of an unwieldy mess (which is fair considering the size and complexity of the current welfare system). The move from GCSEs to ‘Gove levels’ aka the English Baccalaureate, rankles with me however as it is part of a greater thread that has made this country’s road to recovery a more difficult and tortuous one.
The EBACC has been touted by Gove, since the initial leak of his plans, as a more rigorous means of testing secondary school students. Rigour is a good word, one that paints pictures of pained expressions, crumpled brows and eventual triumph. In that sense, I give praise to Gove’s shrewd marketing of this almost classically Tory ideal. Everyone should work hard to achieve, we can all agree on that, right?
Vagueness however only serves to muddy fundamental differences in thinking. The EBACC replaces the current multi-faceted and rather unwieldy GCSE system with the polar opposite; students, from 2017, will be taking a single three hour exam at the end of their two years of study. Gone will be the multiple, competing exam boards and gone will be the accommodating retakes. A fair amount of this sounds reasonable.
It rankles because a magnifying glass reveals the coldness of this bold move. Take the three hour exams for example. In three years of my Law degree I did a handful of these and even at that stage of education they proved to be among the most difficult things I have ever done. At 16, if not an ‘exam person’ – which let’s face it, few are for reasons other than a lack of rigour – a single three hour exam is unlikely to prove much about academic capability. Condensing a single exam into a point of permanent reference to place upon the neck of sixteen year olds is, in my eyes, warfare against success.
Despite the ridiculous complexity and gentle accommodation of the current system, Gove clearly DID NOT need to go to these lengths to simply make things a bit more rigorous. The consistently “record” level of GCSE results (that halted this year) do not and should not be taken to simply suggest things are getting tangibly easier. A cursory glance at the current graduate quandary shows that even those who have been awarded average grades over the years have eventually succeeded in getting Degrees that would be and still are heralded everywhere else on the globe.
The 11A* students are obviously not the problem; almost all of them I wager attended a Russell Group University and picked up a 2:1 degree or better. So why exactly would Gove want to make them more rigorous? Are these soon to be demoted A* students going to end up without degrees? Highly unlikely I would think.
So whom does this re-jig serve? If it’s probably not going to turn A* academics into vocational students, who does it help and who does it harm? Clearly, those who are getting average grades and are not-quite-wiz’s or flaky under exam pressure or who might struggle with circumstantial problems are going to suffer. I believe that Gove and his party are continuing the line of ideological thinking that laced the rise in Tuition Fees. The government, I believe, want to tighten the faucet on the number of degree holders.
In theory, this makes perfect sense in the long-term. Our market needs degree holders to be a rare commodity for degrees to be of any worth. The problem is, people are not commodities in the same way as a laptop or bottle of your favourite, painfully tangy beverage. The glut of graduates has been presented in the media as an error, a mistake. This is a terrible shame as most countries aspire to increase their University alumni. The reason, I believe that we should treasure our academic success – aside from reform – is that if properly handled a more intelligent workforce can only be a beneficial thing.
I am of the opinion that the current government have things backward in this respect. Modernising our economy to harbour an academic work force, I believe, will be the way that we might continue to compete with other global economic powers.
My other issue with Gove’s plans lie in the neglect of the real problem with our education system. GCSE age students are taking the buck for a rigour shortage at Key Stages 1, 2 and 3. Even in my generation of excess graduates, where as many people who fell prey to the streets ended up in reputable universities, those who ended up on the streets may as well have quit education at age 12. As many graduates as we have, we also are burdened with as many, if not more people who cannot read or write after completing primary school. This should be the source of our national shame.