Notes From the Margins…

Michael Gove: Failure is an Opportunity

  • August 25, 2012
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Downstairs on the living room table, the envelope containing my daughter’s GCSE results sits unopened, awaiting her return from Edinburgh later today.   We have resisted the temptation to fling ourselves upon it – or steam it open and take a surreptitious preview – because an agreement is an agreement.

As the moment draws near however, I feel for those children and their parents who have seen their aspirations crushed by the arbitrary redrawing of the GCSE grade boundaries that has transformed C grades into Ds and resulted in the first fall in overall pass rates in the exam’s history.

Whatever my daughter’s results, they will not be affected by the changed criteria in English, for the simple reason that she took her English GCSE in January before the changes were introduced.

The kids who took their exam in June had no way of knowing that the goalposts had been moved in order to make it harder to achieve a C grade, and no wonder they and their teachers are angry – and not only with the exams regulator OFQUAL.

A number of teachers and headteachers have pointed the finger of blame at the ghastly Michael Gove, and attributed the first fall ever in GCSE/A Level results to political pressure from the government.

John Townley, the head of two academies in Leeds and one of Gove’s favourite headteachers has condemned the boundary changes as ‘butchery’ and said that he and other heads are ‘ incredibly angry on behalf of the children.’

Unusually, Townley has promised a united response from academies and other schools that may involve mounting a legal challenge to the results.     Meanwhile one of Gove’s senior advisors has declared that ‘It’s difficult to avoid the assumption that there’s an orchestrated campaign going on somewhere [to reduce pass rates].’

Both Gove and OFQUAL naturally deny these accusations, and insist that the changed criteria are a natural and legitimate attempt to prevent ‘grade inflation’ and ensure that pass rates are in line with previous years.     Such denials can certainly be taken with a pinch of salt.

It may be that the changes were intended by the exam regulators to avoid the usual criticisms that rising pass rates signify not rising achievement, but an overall process of ‘dumbing down’.

But the introduction of the changes so late in the day and without warning – coupled with the fact that some pupils took the English GCSE in the same year under very different criteria – is so blatantly unfair and obviously geared towards a certain outcome – that it is impossible to avoid the suspicion of direct or indirect political interference from a government that plainly loathes the comprehensive education system and is always looking for an opportunity to dismantle it.

Such interference is difficult if not impossible to prove.     But there is no doubt that a fall in grades is likely to be privately welcomed by the toad-of-toad-hall-like figure who occupies the position of education secretary, for whom any evidence of failure – whether genuine or artificially engineered – invariably adds to the pressure to transform schools into academies.

Already the changes in Ofsted’s assessment system have   resulted in a rise in the number of schools categorized as ‘inadequate’ or placed in special measures. This year’s reconfigured results are likely to be used as further grist to the mill for Gove and Ofsted’s Chief Inspector and hitman Michael Wilshaw.

Because in this country, if schools score well in their exam results, it’s because exams are too easy; if they score badly then their results are proof of failure.   Either way the government – and not only this one – will find evidence that schools are not doing well enough, the better to open them up to ‘market forces’.

Even the Olympic Games were dragged in to serve the government’s anti-comprehensive education system agenda, as the preponderance of medal winners from independent schools was presented as evidence of an ‘all-must-have-prizes’ culture in the comprehensive system that supposedly discourages competition – a fantasy that ignores, among other things, the huge discrepancy in sports facilities between the two systems.

Gove will undoubtedly seek to use this latest debacle for similar purposes.   But the crude and clumsy manner in which the boundary changes have been introduced without regard for the thousands of children who have had their life chances pointlessly blighted –   means that he may not succeed.

On the contrary,   the general outcry has now cast a harsh spotlight on the would-be gravedigger of   comprehensive education, and it may well be that it reveals more than he or the public are able to bear.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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