It is a puzzling aspect of modern politics that the more persistently a minister is entreated to change their mind on an issue, the greater the crowing if he or she does indeed perform an about face. This week Michael Gove was the subject of some well-rehearsed newspaper headlines, although for once their chosen pun, ‘EBacctrack’ was mildly amusing.
But how much of a U-turn was Gove’s announcement? While GCSEs will remain, they will be based around a more ‘old school’ end of year exam rather than modules taken at intervals during two years of study. There will also be a change to the way school league tables are calculated, with a school’s ranking based in future on how pupils do in eight core subjects. So, while the EBC has been dropped, there is still going to be a fundamental change in the way children are tested at sixteen.
Teachers, it is reported, while not leaping for joy are happy that the original proposals, that would have almost certainly created a two tier educational system as seen in days of yore, have been changed. The government is describing their changes as a simple ‘tweak’ while Labour are leading the charge in getting #EBacctrack all over Twitter. Meanwhile the Conservative element of the coalition are reported as being ‘furious’ that Lib Dems may have leaked details of the policy change to the press. The left is gloating and the right is in duck and cover mode. Debate over the substance of the reforms is ebbing away like a fast tide and an issue that is as important as the Marriage Bill has, through an average pun and the passage of a few days, been turned into a political football.
To quote Sam Seaborn, education is ‘the silver bullet’ to a plethora of society’s ills. A lack of education leaves a vacuum into which young people of all backgrounds can fall and a good education can transform the prospects of even the most disadvantaged child. While Gove’s original plans were rightly ridiculed by teaching professionals, the political bullfight his change of heart has created is obscuring everything that is still wrong with the government’s reform plan.
Changing the curriculum and the way students are assessed is a superficial move. At the heart of education are the resources and time at the disposal of teachers. Class sizes need to be smaller; more money needs to be available to schools for facilities; and extra-curricular activities and teachers need to be better prepared for the rigors of the classroom. It is no coincidence that countries such as Sweden, whose education system is far superior to Britain’s, hold teachers in much higher regard then we do. A study in 2009 found that around 40% of university-trained teachers drop out of the state system within six month of starting. There isn’t a lack of well-educated people taking up teaching as a career but rather a problem in keeping them there.
As someone who has been lucky enough to see both the private and state systems in the front line as it were; the main differences between the two are all linked to the issues mentioned above. The teachers that taught me in the state system were neither less intelligent or less inspirational than those in the private sector, in fact in many cases the opposite was true, however they lacked the tools to convert their obvious skills into ‘results’. Chemistry A-level classes of over 30 pupils all having to share equipment or English lessons where there aren’t enough copies of the GCSE set text to go round are hardly conducive to educational excellence. Where the private sector excels is in its resources and small class sizes as well as the ability of public and private school to be selective in their intake. The idealist might dream that one day non-selective schools will reach the same lofty educational heights as the likes of Eton and Harrow but if such a goal is to be achieved it will not be through Michael Gove’s new curriculum (especially as it cuts the provision of arts and music, subjects proven to boost student performance) and will certainly not be solved by a new approach to exams alone.
In all of the debate over whether the government is reversing full throttle or simply affecting a minor change of course, no one seems to be talking about how this will affect the teenagers who are at the heart of any change to the education system. It doesn’t matter whether a U-turn is or is not a U-turn, it matters that the government gets this right.