Gove & Abbott: The Odd Couple
The atmospheric setting for this burgeoning liaison was The House of Commons. Isabel Hardman wrote in The Spectator on 11th June:
‘..As the Education Secretary unveiled his plans to reform GCSEs, he was accosted by Diane Abbott, rarely knowingly in agreement with much of what the Coalition is doing. But the Labour MP didn’t want to tell Gove he was wrong. She wanted to say he was right. She asked Gove whether he agreed that ‘an emphasis on rigorous qualifications and an emphasis on attaining core academic subjects is not, as is sometimes argued, contrary to the interests of working-class children, and black minority ethnic children?’
‘On the contrary, precisely if you are the first in your family to stay on past school leaving age, precisely because you don’t have parents to put in a word for you in a difficult job market, you need the assurance of rigorous qualifications, and, if at all possible, core academic qualifications.’
…‘Mr Speaker, I’m in love!’ replied Gove, adding that he would have supported Abbott for leader of the Labour party if only he had been a member.’
Ain’t love grand? For some, maybe…however, not all of a gauche persuasion support Abbott’s positive view of the reforms. Indeed, there has been some very vocal opposition. Suzanne Moore writing in The Guardian on 12th June, said:
‘When my 12-year-old said this week that she needed to do some homework…I didn’t say, “you don’t need to learn much – just memorise stuff and spew it out when the time comes..”
Ah. This will be the ‘facts and figures are bad’ argument. I hope one day to understand how knowing and memorising information is distinct from ‘learning’. What is learning if not storing information in your head for future use? Acquiring knowledge about something that one didn’t know before is learning, is it not? Apparently some would seek to disagree.
Moore continues: “…that poem you love…will no longer count because it is in fact a lyric by Morrissey…”
Here she is correct. Under the new reforms, there is every chance that the poem her daughter loves will no longer count towards her literature studies because it is in fact a lyric by Morrissey. Amen to that. There is, as yet, nothing to suggest that the daughter cannot go on enjoying the wisdom of ’The Smiths’ and their enigmatic front man – Just that she won’t be examined on her appreciation. When I was twelve, I could have written a whole book about ‘Ghostbusters’ I was never given the chance either.
Meanwhile, Mark Ellis (Mirror, 12th June) picked up on the union concerns that the reforms are ‘rushed’.
‘National Association of Head Teachers chief Russell Hobby called on the Government to listen to concerns…
He said: “We need to take time to get any new assessment system right. We need to listen to specialists when they tell us what will, and won’t, work.”
Tom Bennett can respond to this so much better than me. On Tuesday night he tweeted:
‘It seems that some people view the GCSE changes as rushed. I know. I mean, what can you do in two years? Barely enough time to boil an egg’
He’s right. Surely, two years really ought to be long enough? Even more pressing, there appears to be a contradiction here, unless I misunderstand. Why would we want to condemn any more pupils than absolutely necessary to a, now widely, discredited qualification, whose card is well and truly marked?
The Mirror report continues: ‘In a statement to the Commons, Mr Gove insisted there is “widespread consensus that we need to reform our examination system to restore public confidence”’
Anyway, back to our star-crossed lovers, Gove and Abbott. One crucial issue has united the pair:
Standards and expectations of the lowest achieving and often most deprived and disaffected young people, whatever their cultural background or heritage. All too often there is a sense that there is a whole swathe of kids, nationally, who just ‘aren’t up to much’. ”You’ll never be able to get Fred to do that, he’s just not interested in school” or, my personal favourite: “How can we ever expect Mary to RELATE to Shakespeare? Its got nothing to do with her world!” It’s here that we teachers need to look carefully at our own attitude and skills. We must work on how we manage and alter the behaviour and attitude issues that many of these young people are laden with. The onus is on us to raise our own standards and expectations in order to smash down all possible barriers to learning. You get what you settle for.
For one hour every Tuesday morning I teach English to a boy in the education department of a Remand unit. He’s been assessed at Level 6a, which is fairly impressive, whatever the background. Who knows what level he could be at and what he might’ve achieved had life dealt him a better hand ? Now he sits in a secure remand unit, wearing a tag, awaiting sentencing, thinking what his next tattoo might depict. Education-wise, he’s paying lip-service to a functional skills course that, whilst being better than nothing, is culturally vacuous and too easy for him.
Now, I don’t agree with all that Mr Gove does or says, by any means. However, I do feel that he’s right on the curriculum and examination issues, particularly surrounding GCSEs. As Diane Abbot acknowledges, if anything is going to improve the life chances of young people, having a clutch of qualifications at a standard people can trust will be that thing. I have written here before on this subject. Just a reminder now we know more about what’s happening:
At a stroke, the new cumulative points system will remove the issue of educators constantly being obliged to focus on elevating the D(fail) groups or individuals to C(pass). Doubtless these pupils do currently take up a disproportionate amount of teacher time, as schools struggle and strive to meet their 5 A*-C targets. This, inevitably, leads to less time for both the most and the least able individuals. That really did need addressing, and has been. Pupils will now accumulate points across eight subjects. Eight is the maximum number of points per subject. 1 the lowest. A pupil may need to have achieved a certain number of points across all subjects to get on a particular college or A’ level course. Doesn’t that make sense?
For the English GCSE, pupils will now have to read complete texts, be they novels or plays, as they won’t know which section they’ll be examined on. I recall reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Hamlet’ in minute detail as part of my English Literature GCSE. We pored over each page, scene, act and chapter, picking up on themes, nuances, implicit information, character, relevant quotes and plot lines. We made notes. We took it in turn to read aloud. Our excellent and enthusiastic English teacher stood at the front and gently led or guided us through what we needed to digest. (That’s another issue for another time.). Pupils are “supposed” to study the whole text now. That’s the official line. However, the exam boards – in their infinite wisdom – have been TELLING teachers for some years now which scenes or chapters the examination will require knowledge of. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that often that’s all that’s studied of the actual text. It’s far easier to watch a DVD, for context: Then you just look at the bit you have to, don’t you?
When I sat my GCSEs in 1989, the coursework element made perfect sense. A means of displaying a deeper subject knowledge outside of the high-pressure, high-stakes exam hall. In order to research and complete coursework, I had to pay close attention in class, read the texts/textbooks I’d been supplied with and/or make frequent trips to the library in order to give me an edge on my peers. Life and technology moves on, which is a good thing but it has sounded the death-knell for coursework. In nanoseconds, the Internet will now provide any information you could ever need on any subject under the sun. Worse still, for a small fee, already completed essays are available to plagiarise, at will. This is just progress, and it’s nobody’s fault; but how can this possibly be an accurate assessment of a child’s true abilities? Therefore, the solution is to remove the coursework and controlled assessment element almost entirely, and assess on final examination, alone.
So, returning to our original subjects. It seems hardly surprising to me that both sides of the house are in agreement on this matter. Common sense, surely, wears no party political colours. When the solutions seem to be so obviously correct, maybe it might be difficult to argue a case against, unless you wanted to risk appearing a tad stupid…What Stephen Twigg actually thinks of the new reforms is proving a bit awkward to ascertain. I have trawled the Internet looking for a clue. All I can find are a few quips about Gove’s tweaks to his reforms and a line about the removal of controlled assessment and coursework. Perhaps he could ask Diane Abbott to brief him.
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