HEAD teachers across the Herald and Gazette area have welcomed the shock decision by government minister Michael Gove not to forge ahead with much-hyped plans to shelve GCSE exams.
The education secretary announced to parliament that his proposals were “a bridge too far” with the Baccalaureate EBC (or Ebacc) system. His admission came in the wake of a Conservative education select committee warning that “there was no clear evidence” the new system would offer improvements.
There were also major concerns expressed by Liberal Democrat coalition partners over Ebacc’s reported focus around the core curriculum, leaving many fearing creative and arts based subjects would be sidelined.
Equally, significant question marks had been raised by teachers’ unions over the creation of the new exam standard potentially creating two-tier education – with those not sitting the main qualification given a lower certificate which may have proved of little value to employers.
Despite the surprise retreat from attempting what was has been described as the most radical overhaul of secondary education in a generation, Michael Gove has pledged there will still be reform to GCSEs from 2015.
The present exams, which had faced mounting criticism over the past decade over charges they were becoming easier due to continually higher grade pass rates, are to be taught with far greater emphasis on pure exams.
In addition, Gove has signalled there will be revision of the national curriculum and revised system of measuring key national league tables, which have become the yardstick by which many parents consider secondary options for their children.
Among those welcoming the withdrawing the Ebacc proposals was Della West, head teacher of Davison’s High School. While she admitted the present GCSE system was far from perfect, she feared the advanced speed of government reforms meant secondary schools were being “pressed into privatisation.”
She said: “There is great delight across the school that Mr Gove has changed his mind, in the force of such strong opposition, over his plans for the EBC. We celebrated this small victory.
“However, schools will still be bound by the targets set by the government as a measure of their performance and these will continue to influence decisions made by schools regarding their curriculum model, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their circumstances. Even academies and free schools are expected to achieve against the same targets so talk of greater freedoms for these schools is misleading and unhelpful.
“At Davison we have always built our curriculum offer around what is best for the students of each cohort and most appropriate to both challenge and support them in achieving their aspirations. Government targets have always been a secondary consideration for us. For this reason, we have not felt it necessary to make major changes to our curriculum offer for the future.
“What is alarming for all school leaders, and I am no exception, is the lack of regard for the planning time required to implement changes, particularly when a change of emphasis might involve staffing changes, and the sheer volume of the changes we are expected to implement.”
Head teacher of the Angmering School, David Brixey, said: “I surprised about this, but pleased the decision has gone the way it has. I think the GCSE system does have many strengths. The problem with what was being proposed that it did not allow every student to access the main Ebacc exam, leaving them to sit to what some might consider a second class exam.
“I think GCSE’s have worked well, but changing the way that GCSEs are done in reducing the amount of coursework is a good idea. The government will be changing the curriculum but we don’t yet know. What the government had been trying to do was change the exam before the curriculum, which was the wrong way round.”
Tim Loughton, East Worthing and Shoreham MP, who has been a key supporter of the government’s drive to create academy schools, said: “This is a welcome reconsideration by the secretary of state. It is clear he was being too ambitious for what he was trying to do in reforming the system. It is important that we now see children equip themselves with numeracy and literacy skills and more academic subjects, rather than qualifications which are less robust.”
Worthing Liberal Democrat county councillor Bob Smytherman felt the retention of the present system was the best way forward. He said: “I am of the CSE exam qualification generation and I was concerned that is what the Ebacc was going back to, in being good for the top 15-20 per cent of students and not for the rest of them, leaving them with qualifications which were not recognised by employers.”
Steve Mercer, head of St Andrew’s School, also welcomed the fact there would be more of a sense of continuity in modifying existing GCSEs rather than a radical revamp such as that originally proposed.
He said: “Our drive is to provide a first class, personalised learning experience for our students, celebrating the strengths of every boy. We welcome an educational system which will allow students to learn in the best way for them and hopefully the turnaround from the Baccalaureate will support the school’s ethos in providing this education.”
Sue Marooney, head of Durrington High, felt any changes to the educational system should be “rooted in a clear and evidenced rationale” and hoped the way forward now being proposed would be the best course of action.
She said: “Students should have the opportunity to study a broad and balanced curriculum which provides them with the skills required for further learning and employment. We welcome rigour and high standards, and hope future changes reflect this.”
Sharing his view, Mike Madden, head teacher of Chatsmore School in Worthing, said: “I think it’s good that Michael Gove has actually listened on this. We have pretty much moved away from doing modular coursework which had been criticised in the GCSE system. But there is still a strong feeling that coursework in certain subjects such as science and art that they are not just about exams and having those practical elements is very important for children’s development.”
Paul Riley, vice principal of Worthing College felt modifying the present GCSE system slightly was the way forward. He said: “We are pleased about the decision on this as I don’t think that changing would have been right for young people’s development. In terms of the policy, it seemed to be “made on the hoof” as there needs to be more thought about how you implement such big changes.
“We were particularly concerned as creative arts subjects were at risk under the Ebacc system and would not have allowed young people opportunities in those areas. What has come out of this is that Michael Gove will listen more as a result of this.”