The weird and wonderful world of education policy

First rebalancing school inspection… and now scrapping GCSE: Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of education policy

As an academic with a focus upon education policy, and particularly inspection and examinations, the last few weeks have been extraordinary.

As I outlined in January, first, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, explained how examination performance will cease to be the overriding indicator of school performance.

And now an even stranger turn of events.

The Chair of the Education Select Committee has called for ‘pointless’ GCSE examinations to be scrapped.

Yes, scrapped!

Robert Halfon, claims that young people need to have access to a much wider range of skills than those supposedly evidenced by both the GCSE and A level examinations. Instead of a focus upon academic subjects being the ‘gold standard’ of education achievement, Halfon is putting forward a model with a vocational element.

So far so good.

The MP then proposes a baccalaureate system to replace A levels. Again, so far so good.

At this point I must admit I was waiting for the catch.

Halfon, continued by suggesting that young people leaving school – with, one presumes, GCSEs – are lacking the skills required for the modern world. Halfon’s comments were supported by the leader of the ASCL union. Speaking to the BBC, Geoff Barton told Sean Coughlan that

 “GCSEs are a product of a different era when many young people left education at the age of 16, but this is no longer the case, and young people are now expected to remain in full-time education or training until the age of 18.

“It would therefore make a great deal of sense to replace GCSEs with some sort of light-touch assessment which would help determine post-16 routes rather than persisting with high-stakes GCSEs.”

So the Head teachers’ union agree with The Chair of the Education Select Committee that scrapping the GCSE is a good thing.

But is there a catch?

Well, such a reorientation has been discussed before – for example in the Tomlinson review. It seems that successive Governments are emotionally and philosophically wedded to the notion that the whole point of going to school should be to pass examinations.

Even in response to Halfon, the Department for Education maintain in insisting that GCSE and A levels are ‘gold standards’. In doing so, they continue to miss the point that young people can make monumental educational achievements which simply are not recognised by the GCSE.

Moreover, there appears to be an increasing distance between what the school inspectorate Ofsted feels are indicators of successful schools.

As I outlined in September 2018, Ofsted inspectors intend to move away from exams results focus. Echoing what teachers, school leaders and Unions have been asking for, Ofsted has acknowledged that its current approach to inspection has significant and detrimental implications for schools.

In additions, there is an a increasing  discourse regarding the stress that examinations are putting upon young people’s mental and  physical health – including challenging advice from a previous head teacher of Harrow school that GCSE preparation requires 7 hours a day revision leading up to their tests.

Underpinning the discussion around GCSE there remains one significant fact: Despite the new reformed GCSE, just over 53% of children in England achieved the benchmark 5+.

That means of course that around 47% did not.

There have been long standing debates around an education system where around half of the students fail to achieve the grade stipulated as the benchmark by government. For example, as Liz Atkins outlines, the notion that those who ‘fail’ their GCSE are lacking aspiration is a falsehood.

What is not a falsehood is the impact of ‘failing’ their GCSE examinations on children. There seems then, compelling evidence that the GCSE is anything but the gold standard.

With calls from influential policy actors ask to rebalance school inspection and to scrap GCSE, the question must be asked – what next?

Well, let us return to where we began.

That Robert Halfon – The Chair of the Education Select Committee- has called for ‘pointless’ GCSE examinations to be scrapped is hugely significant. In making this plea, Halfon has illustrated the long-standing divide between the academic and the vocational. Simply put, the academic is seen as more prestigious than the vocational.

This, of course, is ridiculous.

Halfon makes the argument that industry is finding the skill needed absent in the young people leaving schools – a claim supported by organisations such as the CBI.

I would go further though. A fixation upon certain GCSE subjects  – because this is how schools are ranked – has had the consequence that art subjects are being increasingly ‘squeezed’ out of the curriculum. Indeed, the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Values, found that between 2003 and 2013 there was a 50% drop in GCSE entries for design and technology, 23% for drama and 25% for other craft-related subjects.

If addressing the skills gap, as well as the sidelining of the arts, is to be assuaged then Halfon’s ideas appear to be sensible, credible and above all ‘doable’.

Perhaps there is ‘something in the air’.

But in the space of a month, it seems that two fundamental root-and-branch suggestions aimed at shaking up our education system have made the light of day. One by the Chief Inspector, one by the Chair of the Education Select Committee. As the title of this piece suggests, welcome to the weird and wonderful world of education policy in 2019.

Of course, there is a long way to go before anything might change.

But credit where credit is due.

Twice in a month I had to sit down, mouth open, and say out loud that maybe, just maybe, there might be (positive) change in the educational air.


Andy Clapham







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