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A better curriculum, more rigorous qualifications and a fairer way of assessing school performance
11/02/2013 18:03:00


Last Thursday, Michael Gove made a statement to the House of Commons on the future of qualifications, school league tables and the national curriculum.

Now obviously I’m Michael’s PPS (Parliamentary Private Secretary) so I’m biased, but I thought the statement struck the right balance between idealism and pragmatism.

Michael is incredibly passionate about raising standards in our schools - particularly in more deprived areas where schools have too often let our young people down, curtailing their prospects. But passion to change things for the better has to be balanced against the risks of making too many reforms at one time.

He recognises that, which is why he announced that the Government will not be proceeding with its proposal to end competition between exam boards in core academic subjects and have just one, new exam - called an English Baccalaureate Certificate - in each subject. Ofqual advised that trying to strengthen qualifications and choose a single exam board for each subject at the same time was a reform too far.

The Government will, however, reform GCSEs to address the grade inflation and dumbing down that occured under the last Government (I know young people who have worked/are working hard for their GCSEs hate politicians talking about their exams having been dumbed down, but the evidence is overwhelming - indeed, even the Labour Party now accept it happened; we would do more damage in the long term if we continued to pretend that it hasn’t happened). Reformed GCSEs will be:

- be linear (all assessments normally taken at the end of the course);

- be universal not two-tier, with pupils no longer forced to choose between higher and foundation tiers and as a result face an artificial cap on what grades they could achieve;

- only use internal assessment and exam aids where there is a compelling case to do so; and

- have fewer bite-sized and overly structured questions, testing extended writing in subjects such as English and history and quantitative problem solving in mathematics and science.

Michael has asked Ofqual to ensure we have new GCSEs in the core academic subjects of English, maths, the sciences, history and geography ready for teaching in 2015. The Government expects the same proportion of pupils to sit them as now. Unlike Labour, we believe that with the right education the vast majority of children are capable of studying academic subjects.

Michael is also reforming the measure the Government uses to judge how well schools are doing. The current measure - the percentage of pupils who achieve 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and maths - encourages schools to choose exams based on how easy they are to pass rather than how valuable they are to the student; leads to a narrow concentration on just five subjects instead of a broad curriculum; and focuses teachers’ time and energy too closely on just those pupils on the C/D borderline at the expense of their higher or lower achieving peers. The new system will have two measures:

- the percentage of pupils reaching an attainment threshold in the vital core subjects of English and maths; and

- an average point score showing how much progress every student makes between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 across a wide range of eight subjects - English, maths, at least three subjects from the English Baccalaureate (sciences, history, geography, languages and computer science) and up to three additional subjects, whether those are arts subjects, high quality vocational qualifications etc.

This will incentivise schools to offer a broad, balanced curriculum - addressing concerns that some had expressed that not enough value was being placed on creative subjects - while affirming the importance of every child enjoying the opportunity to study the English Baccalaureate subjects. By measuring average point scores rather than a single cutoff point, the new measure will also ensure that the achievement of all students is recognised equally, including both low attainers and high fliers.

Finally, Michael announced changes to the National Curriculum. The Government has analysed the curricula used in the world’s most successful school systems such as Hong Kong, Massachusetts and Singapore and combined the best elements of their curricula with some of the most impressive practice from schools in this country. All of the current National Curriculum subjects will be retained at both primary and secondary levels with the important addition of foreign languages in Key Stage 2. Programmes of study in almost all subjects have been significantly slimmed down so that the National Curriculum forms only part of the school curriculum, not its entirety, giving each school the freedom to shape the whole curriculum to their particular pupils’ needs. Unnecessary prescription about how to teach has also been stripped out - the new Curriculum concentrates on the essential knowledge and skills which every child should master. And it’s more rigorous:

- in maths, learning from East Asia, there’s a stronger emphasis on arithmetic and more demanding content in fractions, decimals and percentages;

- in English, there’s more clarity on spelling, punctuation and grammar as well as a new emphasis on the great works of the literary canon;

- in the sciences, there’s rigorous detail on the key scientific processes;

- in foreign languages, there’s a new stress on learning proper grammatical structures and practising translation;

- in geography, there is an emphasis on locational knowledge – using maps and locating key geographical features from capital cities to the world’s great rivers;

- in history, there is a clear narrative of British progress with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines from our past and a fairer treatment of black and minority ethnic figures in European and world history; and

- in art and design, there’s a stronger emphasis on painting and drawing skills;

- in music, a balance between performance and appreciation; and

- the old ICT curriculum is being replaced with a new computing curriculum with help from Google, Facebook and some of Britain’s most brilliant computer scientists.

All in all, a much needed set of reforms that I hope will be welcomed by teachers, parents and pupils in Croydon: a curriculum that compares with the best in the world, more rigorous qualifications and a fairer system for assessing school performance.

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Readers' Comments

On 11/02/2013 20:11:00 Jim wrote:
Chinese (Mandarin) should be compulsory from the age of 5. Much more important than French, German, Welsh(!) etc. I've been saying that for 20 years.



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