Gove, the epitome of undisguised reaction, is driven by three aims for the UK education system: to privatise every bit of it he can via academies and free schools, to put English traditionalism at the heart of it (symbolised for example by sending every school a copy of the old encrusted King James’ Bible), and to ensure that ‘more intelligent children’ (code for the better-off classes) were not held back by any truck with egalitarianism. Even he has excelled himself by trying to replace the universal GCSEs by the highly divisive O levels and CSE. As he told the Daily Mail this summer (without bothering with Parliament), “less intelligent pupils…were to…sit simpler exams, similar to the old CSE”. Once again the sheep and the goats were to be introduced into English education from which even Tory education Ministers had retreated in the 1980s.
Clegg appears to have pulled him back from this reactionary excess – though given Clegg’s malleability and his proven readiness to embrace later what he had previously abjured as unthinkable, one can never be sure whether this will stick. But for the moment Gove, having clearly given no serious attention at all to what ‘simpler’ exams for the ‘less intelligent’ might entail, has pulled back from reproducing elitism in its most blatant form and is now declaring that the EBacc is a test that almost all pupils can sit. We shall see how long this uncharacteristic Govean compromise lasts.
To be fair to Gove – which is difficult – grade inflation did have to be dealt with, but that did not remotely require the removal of all the architecture of advance painfully secured over the last several decades. To throw out modules and return to the emotionally pressured and highly suspect 3-hour written paper as the single decisive test is a hugely retrograde step. And Gove still hankers after old-style testing with short questions with precise answers regurgitated from memory when multiple choice formats and a more open exploration of intellectual ability would provide far better evidence of underlying aptitude.
There are certainly other objections too. The GCSE is being dumped without any evidence from the regulator Ofqual that it was beyond improvement or reform. It is entirely unclear what ‘special or enhanced support’ for ‘less intelligent’ pupils is supposed to mean, other than a rhetorical gesture to dismiss the major objection of a two-tier system. And millions of pupils are now caught in the trap of having to sit GCSEs until 2016-7 which Gove has scorned as not creditable, even worthless.