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Monday, September 17, 2012 

All stand for the arrival of the Gove level.

Far too much of politics, it's impossible not to notice, is vanity. For a couple of years we heard of little other than Tony Blair's legacy, and how he was desperately trying for it to be something other than a 4-letter proper noun. This mania isn't just limited to leaders though, as Justine Greening recently inadvertently made clear: told she was being moved from transport to international development, she apparently exclaimed that she hadn't gone into politics to distribute money to the third world. Quite what she did go into politics for she didn't say, but one suspects it was the exact opposite, with perhaps a side-project in not concreting over the rest of the London area.

Which brings us to Michael Gove. Not content with having already established his free schools project, as well as vastly increasing the number of academies, he's now managed to come to an agreement with the Liberal Democrats over what was meant to be his replacement of GCSEs with a return to something resembling the old O-Levels. Except, thanks to the intervention of Nicholas Clegg, there now won't be a return to the old system of one set of exams for the bright kids and another for the thickos. This, we are told, will make all the difference.

Except this rather raises the question of why bother to introduce an entirely new set of exams at all. Already this summer we saw the heavy influence of Gove over Ofqual, who in turn brought pressure to bear on one exam board to shift the grade boundaries so that the marks that got a C grade in January only brought a D six months later. If the motive is purely to raise standards, as we are told, then there's no reason whatsoever why GCSEs can't be revamped accordingly, the modules Gove so despises abolished, and just the one exam board established. This makes far more sense than effectively starting again in 2015 with another new qualification, further confusing employers and further education establishments when they already have to differentiate between GCSEs, the international GCSE, the international baccalaureate, highers, AS-Levels, A-Levels and so on.

Quite what it is that Gove has against a module based curriculum other than how under the current system you can do a unlimited number of resits is in any case unclear, as Labour years ago heralded a shift away from coursework. Modules have long been the standard at university, and we're often told of how important it is for universities to provide their expertise to schools, but not apparently when it comes to structuring the school year. Rather than meaning the end of teaching to the test, the current situation which for years has reduced teaching to not much more than the endless parroting of key facts and figures until they've finally sunk in to even the most solid of skulls, having a single exam at the end of a 2-year course will put more emphasis than ever on finding out what's likely to appear and teaching little more than that. As Eoin Clarke also points out, having just a single exam rewards cramming, and ignores how teenagers develop at different speeds. It additionally makes things even more difficult for those who go through significant personal problems right before the final exam: when it's all or nothing, with just the one apparent opportunity for a resit, many are going to come away with that nothing.

It's also unclear where vocational education is going to fit into all this. Mike Tomlinson's report, which called for an all encompassing diploma, looked to have found the solution, ensuring that the different and often undervalued qualifications for practical training would add up in the end to a new whole. With Gove-levels, or whatever they'll officially be known as (English Baccalaureate Certificates, apparently) the gap looks to be widening even further. Moreover, forgotten in all of this has been the fact the changes will require a new curriculum, and we know all about Michael Gove's preference for "traditional" teaching, a fact that belies his repeated references to and supposed belief in innovation and best practices. The proposed changes are already worrying teachers, especially those who are going to follow this year's Year 7s through their time at secondary school, with the unlucky sods destined to be Gove's guinea pigs.

Not disputed is that despite Blair's mantra of education, education, education, Labour failed to challenge the brightest and continued to let too many underachieve. At least they succeeded in raising standards overall though, despite what Gove and the right-wing press claim, and the academy system for its many flaws was aimed at improving schools in the most challenging areas. Everything the coalition has done since it came to power with the exception of the all but meaningless "pupil premium" has been to undermine that work, encouraging elitism for its own sake rather than as a means to improve standards overall, while antagonising teachers for little reason other than the right long ago took against them. And don't believe for a second that should Labour win in 2015 they'll move quickly to repudiate Gove's legacy: Andrew Adonis's polemic for academies, written up so dutifully by Martin Kettle in the Graun last week, shows just how little room for manoeuvre the once uber-Blairite Stephen Twigg has. Gove-levels are likely to be here to stay, improvement or not.

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