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Kept awake by Govey

Before you start assuming the very worst, let you remind you all that I have not really slept properly since March 2005; it’s called having three young children, all of whom are terrible sleepers. I explored this topic a few months ago on my own blog.

My sleep – always pretty bad – is currently beyond terrible. Child number 3 is teething and waking on average four or five times a night. But the other night my broken sleep was made even more torturous by thoughts of Michael Gove.

I’m due to go back to the college soon and was thinking long and hard about the impact of the deliberate downgrading of GCSE marks – students who thought they would scrape through with a C have ended up with Ds. This may not sound that important to some people but you need to get 5 A-Cs at GCSE to stay on in sixth form – colleges of further education can be a bit more flexible but even so it throws a major spanner into the works for young people planning what to do next, post-16.

It seems an especially heartless thing to do at a time of major youth unemployment.

So far, so very obvious.

But in the middle of the night, my brain started processing the information in a slightly more intriguing direction -intriguing, if like me, you believe that Gove sees education as something for the elite rather than a universal right.

It reminded me of something I learnt about when I did the PCGE a couple of years ago; something that fascinated me then and something that has allowed me to make sense of Gove’s antics. It is about how you mark exams – it is not as simple as it might appear – and relates to a change in the way that exams were marked that came in with the introduction of GCSE.

GCSE was introduced in 1988 as part of the Education Act that also brought in the National Curriculum – although Gove dislikes it and has made noises about bringing back O Levels (which I did in 1985 & 1986), GCSE was the baby of the Thatcher Government.

In addition to merging creating a one size fits all exam for 16 year olds, replacing GCE O Level (for the clever kids) and CSE (for the less academic), GCSE also saw the introduction of coursework (a Gove pet hate) and something called criterion based testing.

In the days of O Level – only a certain percentage of students were allowed to get an A; this is known as norm based referencing – ie the grade depends on the standard of the student cohort rather then whether you have done everything you need to complete the task. This is extremely unfair; in a year where students are strong, then it is harder to get top marks; vice versa in a weak year.

Criterion based referencing is much fairer and also much more inclusive; the criterion does not change according to the standard of the students and there is the potential for far more students to do well (hence the rising numbers of students achieving top marks until this year).

The 11 plus was norm based and it could also be argued that the fact that exam boards shifted the goalposts for this year’s GCSE students to cut the percentage eligible for top grades, was a return to norm based referencing.

A system that says that only a small number of students are allowed to get top marks is in itself as divisive as the 11 plus which chucked 80 per cent of the population into an educational dustbin. Norm based referencing is by definition elitist, which is why it appeals to Gove.

What interested me most, is that some of the most vociferous critics came from the independent sector. Heads of posh schools annoyed that their students would not get the clean sweep of As and A*s needed to get into top universities. It reminded me of how the 11 plus was phased out in the 60s and 70s because of middle class pressure. The middle classes HATED it when their offspring missed out on their expected places at the grammar school; working class families rarely made a fuss when their kids were sent to a secondary modern.

Obviously, this is only one aspect of Gove’s assault on education, but the idea that only a small number of people deserve to get good marks or even pass exams is all part of his philosophy that education is something for the elites, and more worryingly his chums in big business to cash in on. This article from the New Statesman gives a pretty alarming overview of what Gove is up to.

I fear this won’t be the last time I’ll be kept awake by Michael Gove….

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