The leaking of Michael Gove's plans to return to O-levels in place of GCSEs reignited a row about "falling standards" in British schools. Here Terry Wrigley argues it is not enough for the left to simply dismiss such claims - instead we must argue that the root of the problem lies in the marketisation of education
Right wing politicians like nothing better than a good disaster. Disasters give them an excuse to intervene and make matters worse. If there wasn't a financial crisis, Cameron's gang would have to invent one. Now education secretary Michael Gove is using supposed "falling standards" to destroy comprehensive education and condemn most working class pupils to a second rate education. By abolishing GCSEs and restoring the old "O-level", he is trying to return to the days when only a minority of 16 year olds took a school-leaving exam. This continues the attack which began with abolishing EMA grants for college students and charging extortionate fees for university.
But there is a dilemma here for socialists: is the crisis in schools pure fiction, or is it that the problem is real, but the cure is even worse? This is clear enough with the banking crisis but what about schools? We clearly need to know if children and young people are actually being educated well or not, and where the problem lies.
Exam results in England have gone up every year and the Tories typically complain that they must be getting easier. They simply can't accept that children other than their own can be successful learners.
GCSEs might have become a little easier due to commercial competition between rival exam boards seeking to get more schools to use their "product". But Gove's solution is the real disaster. He wants to abolish GCSEs in favour of an elite "O-level" exam for some and a low-level exam in work-related literacy and numeracy skills for the rest. This will cause the final break-up of comprehensive education, as pupils are divided up by age 14 into upper and lower bands.
The Forum of Private Business immediately put out a press release headed "Death knell of GCSE....will mean more work-ready pupils". These capitalist dinosaurs want "work-ready employees who can write a properly punctuated sentence free from spelling mistakes, and mentally able to work out a simple maths problem". They also want working class pupils to concentrate on practical skills "to help grease the wheels of the economy".
Once more capitalists are blaming schools for their own failures. Actually Gove's proposals would damage the international competitiveness of business. Fifty years ago only a quarter of young people went to grammar schools and took O-levels, and fewer still went to university.
No modern economy could compete on this basis, and yet capitalism also doesn't know what to do with the talent its education system produces - even highly qualified graduates from prestigious universities are finding themselves unemployed. This is a serious contradiction. While Gove's policies narrow down education to what a stagnating capitalism can make use of, they are ideologically unacceptable as they clash with the illusion that capitalism is full of opportunity. His Lib Dem allies find them impossible to swallow.
The truth behind "falling standards"
England's 16 year olds are better qualified than ever. The problem might be, though, that they are not challenged enough in terms of problem-solving or creativity. GCSEs need reforming, not abolishing, to encourage young people to think critically, to work collaboratively, to express themselves in different media, to think about the environment and social justice. This would make learning more interesting, whereas Gove's plans mean dumbing down.
There is evidence that England is falling behind in terms of higher-level abilities. Every three years a sample of 15 year olds take the PISA international assessments in reading, maths and science. These are about problem-solving rather than simply memorising information, for example applying scientific understanding to an environmental problem, or deciding whether a newspaper headline is backed up by evidence in the article.
In 2000 England came near the top of 32 OECD member countries in all three tests, but had fallen back by 2009 to only average. Gove exaggerated this by including newcomers which didn't even take part in 2000, but leaving these newcomers aside, England fell from 8th to 20th place in reading, 9th to 19th in maths and 4th to 10th in science. Its 2000 score in reading and maths was in the top quarter but in 2009 it was only mid point. The fall in science was less dramatic but still large. Gove's proposals miss the point: young people in England are memorising more knowledge but not learning how to think better.
There are also signs that this is happening in Year 6 (10 to 11 year olds), which is dominated by test preparation. Philip Adey and Michael Shayer of King's College London discovered that children were much less able to solve science problems despite rising scores in science SATs, which are largely based on memorising facts. Mary Hilton of Cambridge University discovered that the Key Stage 2 reading tests were simplified in the late 1990s, creating the illusion that the government's literacy hour was a success. Questions which required reading between the lines - part of critical literacy - were removed, leaving only literal fact-spotting. Professor Peter Tymms of Durham also demonstrated that New Labour's claims about rapid improvement were seriously exaggerated.
These are not right wing academics trying to create a moral panic about "falling standards", but honest researchers raising serious questions about whether England's test regime is really helping children learn more. Their conclusions don't support Gove's tale of disaster, but do suggest that cramming for tests is not the same as children learning how to think for themselves. Learning as remembering, rather than understanding, is a consequence of a surveillance system based on pressure to raise test scores, punishment for schools that can't, and competition between schools.
The push to raise scores at whatever cost led to another kind of distortion at age 16. New Labour began to count GNVQs and BTECs as "equivalent" to A-C grades; more than that, they counted a single GNVQ or BTEC as worth four GCSEs at grade C or above. This served two purposes: it shifted the curriculum for 14 to 16 year olds towards work training, and made it look as if government policies were working, particularly in Labour-voting areas. Gove has called this "gaming".
Academies have heavily exploited these "equivalent" qualifications so that the government can create an impression that academies are a success. The pressures of Ofsted inspections and the threat of closure have led many other schools to use them too, though to a lesser extent.
The new qualifications also distorted what is being learnt. Many involve carrying out practical procedures to a basic specification, without needing to think much or express your own ideas. They are a preparation for work that involves following instructions and ticking boxes. This is a new form of class-based education - turning working class kids into working class adults.
Poverty and achievement
Gove and schools minister Nick Gibb claim to be shocked that pupils on free school meals are only half as likely as other pupils to gain five A-Cs with English and maths. They have no right to be surprised, since there has been almost no change for years. This is a scandalous indictment of the way England's school system is run. So much for all the talk about "school improvement" and the magic power of "leadership"! Sadly the Tory-led coalition's answer is…more of the same. They want to carry on where the New Labour government left off, which in turn had adopted Thatcher's education policies.
The first thing the government could do to reduce underachievement is eliminate child poverty, which affects nearly a third of young people. The government's austerity measures will drive more families into poverty, while attacks on benefit claimants as "scroungers" are bound to damage their children's self-esteem.
Working class children, particularly those growing up in poverty, and especially those from many black or Asian families, tend on average to do less well at school. For almost a century the dominant explanation has been some version of "blame the victim": either the children have inherited low intelligence through their genes, or their parents don't talk to them properly, or their mothers fail to stimulate them or they don't care about their children's education. All of these have been exposed as myths.
The latest story is that young people growing up in poverty have "low aspirations". But aspirations aren't some kind of chemical in the brain which some people don't have enough of. Even though some people tend to be more optimistic than others, it is hard to sustain "aspirations" if you have little chance of fulfilling them. The coalition government, by abolishing the EMA grant and charging massive fees for university, destroyed aspirations overnight.
This doesn't mean that schools can make no difference, but it takes enormous energy and ingenuity even to make a modest improvement. Achievement can be improved, as some schools have shown, but not generally by sticking to official advice. There is some research evidence that in areas of poverty, lessons tend to become less interesting - containing more practice exercises and factual question and answer sessions, with little challenge to think, debate and solve problems. The trouble is that government policies are actually reinforcing this kind of routine learning. Coalition ministers are completely out of their depth. Gove's latest demands for five year olds to learn poems by heart, for seven year olds to chant multiplication tables, and grammar tests for 11 year olds might appeal to disgruntled Tory backbenchers but will not help children.
Gove, like Tory ministers before him, relies on nostalgic views of the "good old days". As his 1980s predecessor Kenneth Baker, who introduced the National Curriculum and SAT tests, once remarked, remembering his village school, "I learnt my tables by heart, my poems by heart, it was a wonderful education, copperplate writing, and we had tests!"
Instead of reducing the test regime, the government is introducing new tests which are even less relevant. At the end of Year 1 (ages five to six), primary school children will have to read nonsense words, to check if they have been taught how to read in the officially approved way. This has been condemned by the major teaching unions. Many six year olds will feel that they have already failed.
Chauffeurs and champagne
In recent years there have been several proposals to reform the primary curriculum, including the Cambridge Primary Review which was very critical of the National Curriculum and the way schools are being controlled. Gove has ignored all of these. Instead he set up his own panel of experts but has now sidelined them, publishing proposals of his own. The experts are left wondering where Gove's new curriculum has come from. This isn't hard to guess: it requires seven year olds to learn how to spell chauffeur and champagne!
There are good reasons to suspect that it was copied from traditionalist elite schools. It makes high demands on perfect spelling and punctuation from a very young age. This will inhibit most children just at the point when they are beginning to express their own ideas in writing. Its very detailed requirements will lead to more rote learning and be impossible to fulfil except in very privileged areas. This will demoralise teachers and children, and set up thousands of primary schools to be failed by Ofsted, so that they can then be forced to become academies and be handed over to businesses to run.
Learning from Finland
It is shocking to New Labour and Tory politicians alike that Finland, the highest achieving school system in the world, has no national testing, league tables or school inspectors. Children who are falling behind receive intensive help to catch up. There is excellent library provision, and even teenage boys are enthusiastic readers. Every pupil is given a free and healthy midday meal.
Most important of all maybe, Finland's teachers are well qualified and trusted. They are given time to collaborate to improve teaching and learning, and expected to develop new ideas on how to teach. Finland's national curriculum is not a long detailed list of content that teachers must cover and children must remember: it is a statement of broader educational aims and challenges for children to express themselves and think critically.
By contrast, Gove is tightening up government control of schools and teachers in various ways. Ofsted inspections have been toughened up to put a failure label on more schools and to instil fear. The government are imposing a curriculum which is impossible to teach, and gives teachers no opportunity to devise lessons which will interest children.
Having already driven half of secondary schools to become academies, they now want to force this on primary schools too. All of this is taking place, of course, on top of austerity measures which will damage families that rely on benefits, and unemployment levels which will inevitably demoralise many young people.
The road to ruin
This government is driving England towards a precipice. The warnings are clear. Two years ago Diane Ravitch published a bestselling book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. Ravitch is a veteran American conservative academic. She had supported tests and school privatisation for 20 years, but she was now publicly announcing a change of heart. High-stakes testing and rigorous control of teachers had led to mediocrity. Worse than this, US schools were so obsessed with test results that they were no longer helping young people to grow up as responsible members of society with a sense of citizenship and community.
This is all too familiar in England. Teachers and heads have been persuaded for years that the government knows how to improve schools and raise standards. In fact important ideas on teaching and learning have been censored out, even from teacher training. Learning can be interesting, engaging and satisfying. It doesn't need to be alienated labour - doing things just because the teacher tells you to, with little sense of purpose or motivation.
Teachers need to be trusted and supported to think for themselves, to work together, to teach creatively and to build a curriculum based at least partly on what young people care about. In particular they need to understand the lives of young people growing up in poverty.
Young people need the opportunity to think about the big issues - their own lives, their future, society, the planet. They deserve the excitement of expressing their ideas in print, through the internet, by making videos or performing music or drama - not simply learning by rote and cramming to reproduce the "right answers" for an exam. It is clear from Gove's recent moves that a war is being waged not just economically, in terms of wage and pension cuts and budgets, but ideologically too. It is leading to a more divided and unjust society, where schools simply reproduce inequality. For socialists, this signals the importance of combining trade union struggle and popular protest with a defence of real education and a vision of what schools should be about. Another school is possible.