Gove is right in wanting to raise educational standards in the UK but, unsurprisingly in light of his record, is setting about it in completely the wrong way. According to the OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests covering 65 countries, the UK was placed 7th in reading for 15 year olds in 2000, then 17th in 2006, and then down further to 25th in 2009. In maths the UK was placed 8th in 2000, then 24th in 2006 (below the average) and finally 28th in 2009. In science the UK was 4th in 2000, but 14th in 2006, and then 16th in 2009. The UK was the only country to fall from a top-performing group in 2000 to a lower group just 6 years later, and then fall further still 3 years beyond that. Clearly this slide should not be allowed to continue. But Gove’s plan is misplaced on all four counts.
First, it cannot be right for the regulator, Ofqual, with a nod and a wink from Gove, to tighten standards of assessment between January and June so that the number of pupils getting A*-C grades in English falls by 1.5%, meaning that about 10,000 teenagers expecting to get the crucial C grade end up with D instead. If this exercise is to be attempted at all, it must be done much more transparently, with advance warning of what new criteria are to be applied and how they are justified.
Second, and quite separately, the threshold to avoid being designated a ‘failing’ school has abruptly been raised from getting at least 35% of pupils over the 5 A*-C grade line to 40%. Again this has been imposed without any serious public discussion of what is required to achieve such a significant raising of the bar, and Gove has already made clear he intends to push this further still to 50% by 2015. But increasing the range of higher achievement levels isn’t a matter of arbitrarily fixing higher figures, but rather of a carefully thought-through plan of improved resources, personnel and procedures which might be expected to deliver the objective.
Third, why this obsession of vaulting over the C grade which incentivises schools to concentrate on getting enough pupils over this bar? Surely schools should be encouraged to focus equally on all pupils. Surely lifting a pupil from B to A or from E to D is just as important as lifting him/her from D to C. One way to encourage an all-round approach would be to award points for each grade (say 8 for an A*, 7 for an A, etc.) and then calculate the average for each school.
Fourth, and more radically, is this fixation with grades necessary at all? Instead of schools and universities acting as gatekeepers to elite occupations through an overall numerical grading system, perhaps they could offer employers a much more rounded (and accurate) picture of a potential employee through ‘achievement reports’ detailing marks in each subject, but also including skills acquired in other areas, personal qualities, etc.