Gove education plan is a curate’s egg few will want to eat

Testing times: getting rid of coursework will be a bigger advantage for boys than for girls, experts think. Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Nothing official has been said, but there have been enough leaks, previews and hints about Michael Gove’s vision for an overhaul of the GCSE exam system that all sides have a pretty good idea of what he has in mind and we’ve already got dissent coming in from the Labour-led Welsh Assembly government.

The past couple of days have seen the teachers having their say about Michael Gove’s package of reform proposals for the GCSE exams - and unsurprisingly they focused unfavourably on the plans to withdraw coursework from the assessment process.

But in fairness there is a lot more to Gove’s package than that single issue - here are a range of proposals of varying virtue that need to be looked at in light of what they aim to achieve.

Qualifications and assessment

It has been quite wrong to have a market in examinations, with examining authorities and boards competing for clients, perhaps by making their qualifications easier and easier. This creates a needless lack of comparability, and perverse incentives for all.

A national qualifying system for England needs a single body, as Gove has proposed. A meta-level certificate like the English Baccalaureate recognising success in a range of subject areas is also a sensible idea, even though one could argue about which subjects should be necessary parts of it.

Teachers’ pet hate: Michael Gove, the education secretary, has proposed sweeping changes to GCSEs. Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Unfortunately, it sounds as though the plan for the I-level (or Intermediate) qualification with its grades 1 to 8 is simply to be grafted onto the existing system. That is a move back to the confusion of the early 1980s.

The proposed move away from modules and coursework is plausible but not clearly evidence-based. It is true that the nature and format of assessments can directly influence which social groups tend to do well in them. For example, the so-called “gender gap” in favour of girls only appeared in England from 1988 onwards, just as norm-referencing was abolished, grades started to creep up every year, and modules and coursework became standard.

On average, boys would still tend to do better on terminal examinations, especially those based on multiple choice rather than essays. Abolishing modules and coursework in many subjects could therefore reverse the current gender gap in education. It is not clear that this would necessarily be the way forward for a society where the early advantage for girls at school has yet to cash out into true equality in the workplace.

Rewarding school and teacher performance

Secondary schools and teachers are not largely responsible for their pupils’ “raw score” examination results. Pupil intakes with high levels of prior attainment at age 11 tend to produce high test scores at ages 14 and 16. Schools taking larger numbers of children who are harder to teach tend to get correspondingly lower scores.

This is why city technology colleges, and fee-paying, grammar, foundation, and faith-based schools often appear to do well in comparison to maintained inner-city community schools. However, attempts to overcome this problem of raw scores by assessing the progress pupils make between the ages of 11 and 14 (or 16) are fatally flawed.

Making the grade: the proposed changes aim to make assessment more rigorous. Dave Thompson/PA Wire

The matched records of pupil attainment at different ages, and their background characteristics, are not good enough to conduct a meaningful value-added analysis of pupil progress. The situation is even worse when attempting to calculate teacher effectiveness, since the data is so poor, and most pupils have more than one teacher anyway.

Therefore, we cannot reward schools or teachers on the basis of raw scores, and there is no valid alternative. Until this changes, the national pay scales with the standard internal promotion and reward systems makes sense.

Diversity and stratification

Given the above, there can be no clear evidence of any school or type of school having better results with equivalent pupils, there is no point in having the academies programme for general school improvement purposes. The same is true for all recent new school schemes in England, including untested schemes like free schools.

The social segregation of pupil intakes between schools lowers overall aspirations and attainment, worsens the experiences of the most disadvantaged, and is simply an affront. In England, for example, around one third of pupils living in poverty would have to exchange secondary schools for there to be an even spread of poverty across all schools.

But the evidence is also clear that any increase in diversity of school provision leads to increased segregation of pupils.

A curate’s egg

Schools reform over the past few decades (especially the 1994 Education Act and the 1988 Education Reform Act) has generally aimed at greater entitlement for the public and a comprehensive system that reduced the impact of where you lived or what your background was. Presumably, this is the national ideal which provides the justification for state-funded delivery of schooling in the first place.

Unfortunately, the un-integrated set of reforms, proposed and partly delivered by the current administration, are not in that tradition. Some elements make sense and are clearly evidence-informed, while others pull in different directions or seem to have no evidence base at all. It is important to recall the real lesson of the curate’s egg cartoon. An egg that is bad even only in parts is not an egg that anyone wants to eat. A programme of reform that damages progress towards the national ideal of equity is a poor programme, even if it is commendable in parts.