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Is Gove vying for the title of Britain's most hated man?

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: June 30, 2012

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When geneticist Dr Steve Jones appeared on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs programme in 1992, he chose as his luxury the "stuffed body of Kenneth Baker".

When asked why, Dr Jones replied that if the Tory Education Secretary joined him as a mute castaway he would be unable to inflict any further damage on Britain's schools.

Fast-forward 20 years and many parents, teachers and students fear a visit to the taxidermist may be too good for Mr Baker's successor in the post.

Michael Gove is doing his best to earn the title of most hated man in Britain. From his high-handed dismissal of the Leveson Inquiry in the face of widespread public support and his determination to bus British society back to the 1950s, the daily pronouncements are becoming increasingly out of touch with reality. His latest plan is to scrap GCSEs, a move based on the spurious premise that today's exams are somehow less rigorous than in previous generations.

The argument goes something like this: 20 per cent of students gained A-C grades in such-and-such exam in 1970, compared to 30 per cent today. From such statistics most sensible people naturally draw the conclusion that teaching standards have improved during the intervening years. In any other country, such high levels of achievement by today's students would be a cause for celebration and pride. But not in Gove's Britain, a land in which everyone from teachers and doctors to police officers and school pupils are harangued, criticised and demoralised in the name of some right-wing agenda dreamt up by posh boys with a born-to-rule mentality. What Mr Gove extrapolates is that exams have got easier.

So where's the evidence for this apparent dumbing down of educational rigour? Take a look at a couple of English papers – one from 1961, Mr Gove's apparent "golden age" of education, and one from last year.

GCE O-level students in 1961 were asked to give a brief explanation of the differences between pairs of words: lift and escalator, gramophone and wireless set, canal and river, artery and vein, sword and dagger, snow and hail. Another question invited students to give a single word or phrase that might be used to describe a person spoken of in the following ways: a glutton for work, a vandal, a Scrooge, an oyster, a know-all.

Fast-forward 50 years to 2011's GCSE English paper, which asks: A supermarket chain is planning to build a new store on land which is currently used by local youngsters to play sport. Write a letter to your local newspaper giving your views on this plan. Another task states: Many older people don't use computers or the internet, either because they don't see any value in them or because they are afraid of modern technology. You have been asked to give a talk to a group of older people to persuade them to use computers and the internet. Write what you would say.

Most people would agree that, while quite different in style, both papers contain the kind of rigour necessary to examine competence in a core subject. However, it is important to note that today's GCSEs, unlike their predecessors, are criteria-based, meaning that everyone has the same opportunity of reaching the top grades. Under the old O-level system, a quota system was operated, whereby a student would score less well in a year of brighter students than in a year-group of lower achievers. Surely that's unfair – and exactly the reason why previous administrations introduced such a prescriptive marking system for GCSEs.

So what exactly is Michael Gove's objection? Or is this obsessive meddling simply another example of his extreme control-freakery?

I am privileged to be invited into a Cornish secondary school once a year to take part in a series of mock interviews for Year 12 students who aim to study English, Media or Journalism at university. If Mr Gove took the trouble to look in on one of these sessions he would see that today's young people are far better equipped to enter the world of work and higher education than their counterparts a generation ago. This is largely due to better teaching, a system of continuous assessment and the ability of schools to take a more holistic approach to learning.

Today's state schools offer young people the chance to explore and enhance their own skills and interests, to feed their hunger to learn, to follow directions unheard of even 20 years ago, and to fit them for a changing world. These attributes are far more likely to lead to economic success – and happiness – than a narrow strait jacket of academia designed only to satisfy the needs of Michael Gove's rose-tinted retrospectoscope.

Fortunately, Michael Gove has the air of a politician heading for a fall. Before too long he may become just too much of an embarrassment to his party and be unceremoniously returned to the back benches. When that time comes, perhaps the children of Britain should be given the day off to celebrate his departure.

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