My first post for Backbencher, Feb 2013: Education: The DEbaccle

Education: The DEbaccle.

Education: The DEbaccle.

The latest furore to engulf both the media and education worlds alike is the debacle of Michael Gove’s Ebacc scheme as well as changes to the GCSE system. This follows last year’s (widely accepted) ‘scandal’ surrounding the GCSE English examinations that were sat last summer-or more accurately-the MARKING system employed for scrutiny of said papers.

Let’s rewind to June of last year. Those with an interest in this issue (and peeps or tweeps with long media-memories) will recall a priorMichael+Gove+Party+Faithful+Attend+Annual+-kKCWDcSLpRl Gove-exam-related conflagration, seemingly ignited by ‘leaked’ documents or information. This information suggested that Mr Gove had fiendish plans afoot to shake-up the GCSE exam system to such an extent even the name was unlikely to make the final cut.

Indeed, it appeared, and was widely mooted, there may even be a return to the old O’ level/CSE system…cue: cries of outrage from an awful lot of people..! How could we even contemplate a return to such an outmoded, out of date (in fact extinct) system? O’ levels were hard and kids who took CSEs therefore knew they were a bit ‘behind’ (somewhat like all the kids with a predicted GCSE grade of below a C in fact, ahem)…all these ‘academic’ subjects…they belong in the past…and so it went on…

 ’Copy and pasting’ the old O level/CSE system

I tried my best to take a balanced view of this, but as an English teacher with 17 years service under my belt I have to admit I struggled. What follows, therefore, is my shamefully unbalanced view of this issue, there are several points to consider here:

Firstly: there was no actual hard proof of what the plans afoot really were. In my (very very humble) opinion, the likelihood of ‘copy and pasting’ the old O level/CSE system and using it to wallpaper over GCSEs as they currently stand is minimal. Far more likely is it that a pointless Think Tank will devise something new…Okay, okay I know there’s nothing new under the sun, but still…we dreamed a dream!

school notes

Secondly: (Here’s the rub) There are many issues surrounding the examination system as it stands…please, take it from one who really knows. I may be telling you things you already know, but allow me the luxury: there are several examination boards ‘on the market’ (AQA, Edexcel, OCR to name but a few)these ‘boards’ are, maybe obviously, private enterprises – in fact they are businesses. Each year they lobby schools for their ‘business’, in the hope of securing more ‘sales’ in the form of courses and ultimately examinations. Nothing particularly surprising there except…

Thirdly: It is undoubtedly the case that the way the exam boards secure sales is by making their product appealing to the customer. Nothing too shocking there, you may think…Messers Tesco, Asda etc all do exactly the same thing…they compete. The way they compete, often, is by entering into a ‘price-war’, or maybe lowering prices on certain products to lure the customer in and away from the competition. Exam boards are the same…for ‘lowering prices’ read ‘lowering standards’ or, I’ll be even more explicit, the easiest course with the simplest examination at the end wins the business.

A week or so prior to this story breaking I had sat at an INSET day, very kindly laid on by the boss as an end-of-term morale booster. A very jolly occasion it was too with cooked lunch, beautiful surroundings nothing too taxing training-wise.

After lunch – stuffed as we all were with cous-cous, butternut squash risotto, chicken tikka masala and Moroccan lamb tagine (I kid you not)…I won’t mention the cheesecake and gateaux! – the subject turned to exam boards for next year. [This year] The question being asked of my own subject wasn’t ‘which novels are to be studied?”what’s the Shakespeare for that board?” or ‘is it classical or modern poetry?’ NO; one question and one question only was asked:

‘Which is the easiest?’

Let me be even more clear, the subtext was this: which exam board will offer the pupils the highest marks (translated into grades) for the most minimal effort?

In June, therefore, it was veritable music to my ears that there were stirrings of an awareness of what was happening from government. It seemed that there may be plans afoot to better-regulate the exam system, so that what I have talked of might be stopped.


I hoped, and still hope, that maybe, just maybe, we may have only one centralised exam board…such competition-focused private enterprises surely have no place here… they?

All of which brings me back to the debacle of that week. The marking system had apparently been ‘tightened up’ so as to award a (perhaps?) more realistic grade commensurate with the quality of the work submitted…

I happen to feel that this should have been introduced at the start of the new course. Teachers and pupils alike could have been appraised of what the (new) acceptable standards were and therefore worked towards them. To suddenly require an improvement to the standard of work that’s already been submitted is certainly flirting with dodgy morals…however, I do ask myself this:

Which is worse: to artificially schmooze, flatter and encourage young people into believing they are brighter than they are…only for the real world to find them out and knock them down?

To offer a more realistic, if (admittedly) harsher, picture…work harder, study more and all this could be yours?

Mr Gove finally put us all out of our collective misery

I won’t answer that, it’s for the reader to decide…but please let’s think carefully, A levels, colleges, employers and the general strife of life can have a, sometimes unpleasant, habit of pulling back the sheet and revealing the true picture….far better, surely, if that picture’s actually real in the first place?

Fast forward…

…and so it came to pass! That was what I thought in the summer. This is what happened next. On some day (the exact date escapes me) in September Mr Gove finally put us all out of our collective misery and made an announcement! What he said, in essence, was this (my interpretation, my words):

*The current system has been too open to abuse.

* The exam boards have been in competition with one another, leading to grade-inflation and dumbing-down of courses, as they race to out-do the competition.

*There is now a bizarre array of courses available, under the umbrella of ‘GCSE’ (basket-weaving? Probably!) so let’s get back to subjects that count and are respected.

*It’d probably be quite a good thing if young people left school actually knowing key facts and detail in certain specified subjects. This may be a 1950′s concept..DaVinci was a 1500′s concept. Respect.

*Coursework, as a concept, is a joke..two hours spent on Wikipedia could now provide you with 20% of a GCSE! We’ll have to try and curb that by placing a lot more emphasis on final examination.

*For ‘final examination’ read – watch my lips – ‘final examination’. No, you will not be permitted to resit the exam ten times until you finally pass it. Three should be the absolute max. If you can’t pass it after three probably aren’t up to it.

*The UK could do with pulling its socks up in education, as we are in danger of being seen as a laughing stock among the rest of Europe. We are in the unenviable position of achieving higher and higher grades whilst sliding further and further down the European standards pole. How on earth is that possible? (see above if you don’t know by now!)

With this in mind…

*I’m going to call this new qualification ‘The English Baccalaureate’ and the standards and layout will be commensurate to that which is used on the continent.

All well and good. A major shake-up, yes. However, as not due to come into full force until the current year 7s sit their GCSEs, that leaves five years to adjust and prepare. A little light on detail, but the principles were clear. Fine, let’s just wait and see…


This was my personal view, which was not actually shared by many. A few agreed and wrote Tweets, articles or blogs which seemed to take a sensible, calm view. The majority seemed to go into some kind of Government issue, hysterical meltdown, which seemed a little disproportionate to the suggestions made AND would do very little to quash the feeling that teachers are an inflexible bunch who are unionised to the teeth and quiver at the thought of any change! Worse still, the non-teachers decided to have a go too! Having nothing much else to fire, they mainly shot the 1950′s ammunition. Great!


Last night I happened upon an Independent article suggesting that Michael Gove was about to perform a total U-turn. I may have misunderstood, but it seemed as though he was about to admit he’d been wrong about everything, had been shown the error of his ways and had now decided to leave well-alone and know his place..

Then he made a speech.

I’m not quick enough off the mark, or an expert enough writer to be saying anything too revolutionary here, but I can still say it. Mr Gove hasn’t climbed down, or U- turned. A rose by any other name is still a rose. I can almost see how Spitting Image would’ve tackled this one:

“They’re complaining Mr Gove..they don’t want you to scrap GCSEs..this could get bloody”

“Fine. Let them keep the name, then. Dingbats. Now, about my reforms..”

Teacher in classroom

All of the EBacc principles announced in September still stand, as far as I can see. We have a bit more flesh on the bones today. Teachers will be expected to teach(!) certain information and facts. How they do this is mostly up to them. The end result should, hopefully, speak for itself. There are less subjects on the curriculum, as predicted. Interestingly, it appears as if the fight for D>C grades has been addressed. There will now be a cumulative points system. Presumably to try and avoid the disproportionate amount of time teachers spend trying to get D students to a C level. A sensible move. As the current system stands, the brightest and the most needy often get less attention in favour of these ‘borderline’ pupils.

Europe won’t like or stand for it

Okay, except not okay in one glaringly awful way. I have been stamping about and quietly, and sometimes not so quietly seething about this all day long. The reason we have the myriad of issues that we have with GCSEs is, as I referred to above, as a direct result of exam boards prostituting themselves and turning the cheapest trick of all. They make their courses easier to pull in punters. This is the one thing (apart from the name) that Gove has stated he cannot change. Why? Because Europe won’t like or stand for it.

How very ironic, as it is the same Europe we are trying so hard to emulate! Please Mr Gove; find a way to sort the boards out. You may just find that everything else falls into place.

Or maybe not.

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

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