I have given up hope that Michael Gove will reply to the questions I posed to him – on his invitation – last month. I’d like to say this is because he is on the run from my brilliant interrogation but I suspect it’s just that I’m not worth bothering with (even if other bits of the Conservative Party are quoting me!).
But I will keep nagging away: because I know a bit about education, because it matters, because I am fascinated by the gap between the rhetorical attractiveness of the Gove agenda and its less convincing basis in concrete policy. Also, given how highly disparaging the Conservatives are about what is going on now in most schools it is only fair that they should have their own ideas put under critical scrutiny.
Today and later in the week I want briefly to explore two recurrent critiques in Michael Gove’s pronouncements. The first is the allegation of ‘dumbing down’; the second is of onerous or inappropriate national interference in schools by Labour ministers, particularly through exam targets.
On dumbing down MG has been very clear that he wants to set the bar higher. Pupils will be discouraged from taking ‘easier’ subjects; examinations will be more rigorous; more use of streaming and setting will encourage schools more explicitly to separate the able from the less able. I don’t agree with this approach for reasons I have described before. But the point I want to make today is that the Conservatives need to be clear about the implications of this policy. There are three interpretations:
a) The Conservatives think that raising the bar and forcing more schools to do what works best will swiftly increase the number of pupils achieving a significantly higher standard. The problem with this is that most international evidence suggests it is very hard in mature school systems like ours to achieve this kind of step change in absolute attainment. If the bar rises quickly the number reaching it will, at least in the short to medium term, have to fall. Also, the Conservatives’ ability to force schools to do anything will be limited by their other commitment which is to free schools from central interference and let parents set up and manage their own schools. As an example, MG has been clear that he is very unenthusiastic about competency based curricula like the RSA’s Opening Minds but over 200 school have voluntarily signed up to OM. Will the Conservatives force them to abandon an approach which so many schools say works for them?
b) The Conservatives recognise that raising the bar will mean fewer pupils reach it but they see this as a price worth paying. If so then the Conservatives are abandoning a long held cross-party commitment to increase participation rates in post compulsory education. There is nothing wrong with this policy (the Treasury would certainly be keen on it), but it is a radical break not just from UK but from international practice. If the Conservatives are intent upon it they should say so explicitly.
c) The Conservatives want to raise the academic bar and also maintain the trajectory of high participation. They will do this by more clearly distinguishing between those with academic and those with vocational abilities. The problems with this are, first, that as far as I can see, the Conservatives don’t yet have a policy for school age vocational education. Second, they will need to explain how they intend to overcome the historic failure in England to develop a vocational route into post compulsory education with the same status as the academic. The Conservatives are clearly intent on doing away with diplomas (they said the other day that they will not count them in assessing school performance), but we don’t know what - if anything - they intend to replace them with.
The reason ministers, schools, and universities have ‘lowered the bar’ on the academic performance needed to get into higher education is that we have wanted to increase participation rates (at post 16 and into HE) faster than we have been able to increase underlying levels of academic attainment. There isn’t much evidence that this has damaged the performance of the top 10% (in most international surveys it is among this group that England scores highly). The policy has arguably been unfortunate for the bottom 40% as it means that not going into HE is now a bigger hurdle to employment than before (for example, you can’t now become a nurse without a degree).
The group that will be most impacted by the Conservative reforms is that which has benefited from the expansion in post 16 participation, a group largely but not exclusively comprising middle class children. So unless the Conservatives can find a magic bullet to achieve a substantial and rapid increase in underlying ability their policy will presumably make it harder for above average (but not brilliant) middle class children to get to college. This is a policy that I think Sir Humphrey would have called ‘bold’.