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Unequal opportunities

Ken Jones says Michael Gove’s new system for testing pupils will exacerbate inequality

June 1, 2014
6 min read

Education’s iron cage: a highly regulated system, whereby the complexities of learning and teaching are translated via exams into numbers. The resulting data enables performance monitoring – at the level of individual students, teachers, schools, entire countries. It provides the basis for target-setting, and for taking action to deal with those who do not meet the targets.

We’re meant to believe these judgments of success and failure are objective. But the construction of a ladder of achievement relies on particular notions of what should count as ‘good’ in education – notions that are politicised to the core.

Enter, at this point, the English secretary of state for education, Michael Gove. Gove would like to go down in history as the man who remade the English school system, expanding Labour’s academy programme and introducing ‘free’ schools. But equally important is the role he has taken on as the constructor of indicators – he who decides on the measures through which success and failure can be determined.

Redesigning assessment

In this role, Gove has been unceasingly active. Some of his energy has been focused on determining the content of the curriculum; he is reputed to have played a large part in writing the draft history curriculum. More significant than his attention to content, though, has been his redesign of the assessment system. Three features stand out.

First, at age 11, pupils will be expected to reach a ‘higher and more ambitious standard’. Their performance against this standard will be reported comparatively. The pupil population will then be divided into ten bands, with the top 10 per cent of students in the first band, and so on down.

Second, from 2015, 16-year-olds in England will sit ‘linear’ GCSE examinations. What this means for particular subjects is spelled out by the qualifications agency Ofqual. In the case of English language, for instance, assessment will take the form of a final, external examination; there will be no coursework, no modules. The number of grade categories will be increased, partly to enable recognition of the most successful students, and the range of subjects restricted, to emphasise traditional academic subjects.

Third, a similar approach will be taken at A level. From 2015, A levels, like GCSEs, will be ‘linear’ examinations, without coursework. AS levels will no longer contribute to A level grades.

The social significance is considerable. Gove’s changes have every chance of consolidating the class divisions for which English education is famous. They will do this in ways that were recognised by educationalists 40 years ago. They valorise forms of knowledge that students with a particular kind of cultural capital find relatively easy to access; they demand success in a single type of exam; and among teachers, and students from age 11 onwards, they embed the idea that exams define ability.

Gove presents these changes as evidence of his passion for raising educational standards for all – ‘providing children with the opportunity to transcend the circumstances of their birth’, as he said in 2011. He stands for a story of ‘equal opportunity’ that credits itself with giving the poor equal access to a particular kind of education, once considered the birthright of only the rich.

A stronger answer

These noble sentiments, fiercely expressed, seem to have frightened the Labour Party into cautious equivocation. For instance, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt says that ‘character’ and ‘resilience’ should not be overlooked, but avoids confronting the reforms. Gove needs to be answered more strongly than that, otherwise his changes will become the basis for the next ten years of education. The first thing wrong with Gove’s ideas is that they present the educational practice of English public schools as the pinnacle of excellence. Hence his proposal that state schools should measure the attainment of their students by getting them to ‘try out’ the ‘common entrance’ papers that form part of the admission process to public schools.

For nearly a century, the left in Britain has tried to free itself of this confusion of social dominance with intellectual quality. R H Tawney’s efforts to devise a modern university curriculum, organised around the social sciences, were one part of this effort at emancipation. Another was embodied in the work of thousands of teachers in the later 20th century who sought, across many subjects and phases, to develop a critical and creative curriculum that related the formal knowledge of the school to the cultural knowledge that students brought with them to the classroom. These are traditions that need to be returned to, though Gove’s invective against ‘the 1960s’ is designed precisely to prevent such engagement.

A second problem with Gove’s position – glaring to anyone who dares to look – is that the promise of equal opportunity is belied by the reality of social inequality. One thing we’ve learned about austerity is that it is a process in which social polarisation increases. Gove is silent about this, as he needs to be if his rhetoric is to have any momentum. There is no need for his opponents to be so shy.

Changing grammar

The coalition’s policies are unmaking the conditions that once enabled a certain level of collective security. Individuals, possessing very different levels of economic and cultural resources, have to find new means of accessing employment, social care, housing, and education – in a context where all these social goods are doled out sparingly. Unequal competition, in conditions of scarcity, is now a core principle of social life. A competitive testing system built on examination practices resurrected from an earlier epoch will force students to encounter this principle at a very early age. This is less an ‘opportunity’ for individual students to access higher levels of education and more an opportunity for the government to legitimate pre-existing stratifications in society.

Battered by decades of ‘reform’, each of which seems to intensify the emphasis on performance defined in terms of narrowing indicators, those who work in education are both deeply angry with Gove and hesitant to challenge these measures. Difficult though it is, the battle over pay looks easier to fight.

Yet curriculum and assessment are fundamental parts of the grammar of education. Changing this grammar, through the abolition of the 11-plus and through grassroots curriculum reform, was one of the greatest achievements in the long educational revolution of the 20th century. It is this experience we need to return to now, in confronting the latest stage of what is plainly a counter‑revolution.


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