Thursday 27 September 2012

The Confused Ideology of the EBacc

UK Education Secretary Michael Gove has announced that the GCSEs (the exams sat at the end of comulsory secondary education at 16) will be replaced by a new English Baccalaureate qualification:

"From the autumn of 2015, pupils will be taught for the new EBacc in English, maths and science. These will cover seven papers: English language, English literature, maths pure and applied (with an additional maths option), chemistry, physics and biology.

The new exam will be sat for the first time in these subjects in the summer of 2017. There will be no coursework in English and maths as modules are scrapped on the grounds that they encourage what Gove described as "bite-size learning and spoon-feeding". There will be some coursework in science to take account of the importance of laboratory work.

From 2016, pupils will be taught for the new EBacc in history, geography and languages. Pupils will sit the exams in the summer of 2018. There will be no coursework for history. Field trips will still count in geography and there will be flexibility on oral exams for languages."

The  aim is to restore credibility to the exam system by making exams harder and lessening or removing coursework altogether. I'm not sure what "flexibility on oral exams for languages" is supposed to mean, since surely speaking the language should be a central plank of learning it rather than an accommodation as an afterthought.

What's striking about the changes is the confused ideology behind them. Qualifications are meant to show how, well, qualified you are in a subject or a skillset, and the grading system is meant to separate people on the basis of ability. While it's a good idea to have a new name for a harder system to prevent unfair comparisons with the generation of students who did not have to face the tougher exams, the narrow focus on "tougher exams" misses the point on whether or not this system would equip students with the knowledge and skills needed in life and in the workplace.

It's a fact of life that in any education system students are going to be taught to pass the exams, so does this approach to examination and achieving qualifications help students get the skills they need? Probably not. If the module system is done away with, then the focus switches to memory skills as students have to reguriatate everything they know on a subject in 2 hours. This encourages cramming for exams, rather than the wider use of skills to research a topic and deal with in depth that coursework can provide the opportunity for. And rather than simply "spoon feeding", coursework is an opportunity for students to learn how to use the resources around them and apply them to the task at hand - after all, employers don't expect their employees to sit at their desk struggling to remember things that they crammed for a few years ago when information is so freely available.

It's hard to escape the sense that Gove just fetishises the toughness of exams. Why not make coursework more challenging if that's the problem? Learning as you go through the GCSE - or EBacc - years helps to bed down skills and knowledge and is more likely to be useful in the workplace rather than depending on a one-off retelling of what has been learnt over the year. I know I found continuous assessment more challenging than a pure examination system, since more work was required throughout the year (plus I've probably got a personality that benefits more from exams).

It's ironic that the Tory party that has distained the idea that 50% of the population should go to university should be working to make the secondary education system as narrowly and traditionally academic as possible.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that moving everything to one exam suits a specific type of person and brands other competent people failures. However, the current system is broken, with exams that are far too easy and a system that allows the teacher to do the coursework for the students. Something had to be done and I would have opted for simply tightening up the regulations on the previous system, making it harder and changing its name.