June 21, 2012 8:05 pm

Gove reforms do not pass the test

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Better answers required for questions on GCSE standards

Grades in Britain’s GCSE exams have been on the rise for decades. Three times as many 16-year-olds now sitting tests can expect to receive top marks compared with when GCSEs were first taken 24 years ago. Either children are getting smarter or exams easier. The evidence suggests that tests are not as rigorous as they should be.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has sparked an uproar with his suggestion that GCSEs should be ditched in a bid to raise the standards of schooling in Britain. The brightest pupils would sit an academically tougher exam – akin to the old O-level – while others would be directed towards more practical tests.

Mr Gove is right to want to tackle concerns about lax standards. Though results have improved, Britain’s international ranking has not kept pace. Business complains that the supply of recruits does not match its needs. The regulator has found serious malpractice involving exam boards in setting less rigorous tests, which in turn could boost league table rankings. All this reduces confidence in the exam system.

Mr Gove’s plan is to approve just one exam board for each subject, thus eliminating the temptation to dumb down tests to win contracts. This is a welcome step forward. Abolishing competition need not lead to falling standards if the government sets the bar high enough. Those affected would include Edexcel, part of Pearson, which owns the Financial Times.

Mr Gove’s plans raise many questions. Relegating 14-year-olds to a lesser qualification could brand them as under-achievers and drain both students and schools of any incentive to push for higher performance. A third of children who score in the bottom 25 per cent at the age of 11 break out of that grouping by the age of 16. If they are placed in a second-class category at an early age, there is a risk that these children will be written off. This is no recipe for tackling low performance.

In England the path for a would-be university student is clear and schools know how to guide pupils down it. But for others there is little help and too often even less respect for non-academic qualifications.

This is one of the most glaring weaknesses of English education, along with the catastrophic failures of schools in northern cities and on the coast. It is not clear how Mr Gove’s proposals address these problems. If he was being tested on his education reforms, Mr Gove might get an A for effort. But effort is not enough.

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