Wednesday, 19 January 2011

M.Gove B+ : Good Ideas But Must Pay Attention to Detail

Today I'm going to harp on about education. Now I've spoken about it lots before (here), so you might remember my general feelings towards the state of education in this country. If you wish to refresh yourselves (obviously you never miss a post, so it would just be revision), feel free to read my previous articles. If you fancy the 30 second precis, here it is: Children are not getting more intelligent. Grades are being massaged to suggest they are, both in making exams easier and creating useless qualifications. End product recipients of the 'educated' agree with me. In chasing pointless targets we are failing our youth by not educating them properly. Massively increased spending has been all but wasted. We should probably address this.

I'm going to look at the biggest two New Year Education Resolutions we have seen so far: the introduction of the English Baccalaureate and the scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance. They bring out some interesting points on Government policy in general, and Opposition policy in general (they do have one, I promise), as well as the specifics of the Coalition's education policy.

EMA first. Now the scrapping of EMA is the right decision, and it is nice to see someone as logical and plain talking as Michael Gove explain to the petulant children (Labour benches, not the protesting 6th formers) why. Naturally Labour, in form of shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham, have decried this as "an attack on the aspirations of young people" and stated that because of it social mobility will be "thrown into reverse."

After Mr Burnham had sat back down, and been soothed with a cup of warm milk, Mr Gove kindly explained the teensy error in his argument. As with many Labour policies, this was delivered in a fanfare of publicity, but was not thought out. The grant is "poorly targeted", Gove explained. Firstly, statistics from his department suggested 90% of recipients would have continued in education without the handout (though we shouldn't rely on these totally). Secondly, your average 16 year old is not generally known as the most prudent of individuals when it comes to distributing his or her wealth. Just chucking over half a billion quid a year at the youf of today and asking them to spend it on books and calculators seems unlikely to have a high success rate. I'm sure lots of the kids did use the money for its intended use, but isn't there an Education Secretary whose job it is to spend the department's money in the best interests of the children? Perhaps, given the disdain with which Labour have shown the post, running through 6 Education Secretaries in one form or another in 13 years, they thought one of the fabulously well-educated GCSE students they created could do a better job?

Now I promised you the sole recognisable Labour policy in Opposition: "All cuts are wrong. Everyone's a victim. They're mean. We're lovely. Have some cash I don't have." Told you they had one. Gove calmly countered, "if we really believe in generating social mobility in this country then the question we have to ask ourselves is - how is every pound best invested?" Therein he strikes the nail squarely about its head. Labour's policy of throwing money around to buy votes has done nothing for social mobility, which apparently they champion. Cutting funding for something that does very little is not a bad thing, I mention it from time to time (here). As he elaborated, "you cannot spend money you do not have." Try telling Gordon that. So the cutting of EMA, whilst it deprives some students of a few pounds which helped their education, in reality frees up hundreds of millions of pounds to be better spent on those same children and many more.

So that's the standard 'I agree with the Tories' part, but I also have some criticism for them, and it's over the Ebacc. Now before you hurl your computer out of the window asking how I can possibly be against such a policy when it appears the embodiment of so much of my education-based anger, I'm not against Ebacc. I think it is a great idea. I deplore the move away from Mathematics to Numeracy, from English to Literacy and the invasion of pseudo-subjects and the ludicrous nature of their apparent equality with real subjects - most of it encouraged by Labour's meaningless targets. Richard Cairns, Headmaster of Brighton College mentions a few of these in his article for the Telegraph (here), with which I generally agree (we differ in that I don't think a 'creative' subject should be included in the core of Ebacc - there are some useful ones out there, but they are not for all students in the same way as the fundamentals included in the Ebacc should be). A classic he quotes is the award of the equivalent of 4 GCSEs for an intermediate GNVQ in Information and Communications Technology, a class that takes only as much time to teach as the single GCSE Maths course.

So if I agree with all that, what is there to disagree with, you might ask? You might not. You might know. Or maybe you're reading Cairns' piece because it's better written. Well if you're still with me, it is the implementation, as we have seen with a few Coalition policies, which has left something to be desired. On some policies, in a bid to a) do a lot quickly because lots of things are in a terrible state and b) to be seen to be doing a lot quickly to prove they were the right choice and are working, the Coalition have perhaps moved too quickly (now I realise nobody actually voted for a Coalition, but I think a Tory majority Government would also have fallen into this same trap, if it can be called such). This impetuousness has left a couple of obstacles over which they have obligingly (for Labour) tripped. Statements have come out in a hurry, then had to be clarified, and not all bases have been covered from the inevitable policy dissection.

The screw-up on Ebacc is typical of this, and I must say well illustrated in Cairns' article. The Government are applying it retrospectively, meaning students who chose fluffier subjects, before Ebacc was a twinkle in Gove's eye, will now be judged by its standards. This obviously screws a lot of kids who could have had no idea of some future policy and now have ostensibly failed the Ebacc. It also screws up the league tables as over a hundred excellent independent schools had already taken matters into their own hands and had their students take the more rigorous International GCSE in subjects such as Maths. Labour had refused to accredit this qualification, and rightly the Coalition have said they will overturn this rubbish decision. However, they have not done it in time so the Maths GCSE taken by thousands of children has not counted, instantly disqualifying them from attaining the Ebacc, and putting excellent institutions at the foot of the tables with a 0% pass rate.

Now I don't mind that the league tables don't make much sense this year; the introduction of Ebacc rather illustrates they haven't made much sense for a while. However, the children should not be punished. Gove must right this wrong. The only possible positive the Tories can take from applying Ebacc from this year is that the headline number of only a 15% pass spectacularly unmasks the dumbing down of GCSEs. Even after the scores of those who were excluded because they took harder exams (IGCSE) are taken into account, it shows how many schools push their students to high mark, low value subjects.

So there you have it: some very positive movement from the Government on education, which they rightly see as the key to so many of society's ills, but they have not passed with flying colours. Gove must see the error in retrospective application of Ebacc for what it is lest a policy with great potential gets lost in negative publicity stories. It should also serve as a caution to the Government for 'more haste less speed' in all policy. Wanting to get quickly to work is both admirable and probably necessary for a Government with undoubtedly one eye already on the next election, but more care must be taken. Luckily, Labour are sticking with barnacle-like adhesion to their sole policy of opposing any cut with the same old financially-ignorant mantra. If they keep going, and Gove and the Coalition tighten their game, he may get to see the fruits of his education policies in a second term in Government.

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