I’m writing early in the morning, after an exceptionally disturbing dream. In my dream, I was driving in bad light through countryside and came to a section of road where I knew I had to stop because ahead was something unknown and indistinct. The road ahead was exceptionally dark, and, as I edged forward, I found myself approaching a scene of massacre. Farm animals – horses, sheep and cows, their skins all a dense, shiny black – were lying in tortured positions, scattered over the road and on the fields on either side.
I’m sure there may be many reasons for my disturbance, but one of them is the BBC news bulletin that I watched shortly before going to bed last night. In a short item, towards the end of the news, the reporter explained to the newscaster (on behalf of the audience) the government proposal to return GCSE examinations to something resembling the O-level of 50 years ago. Assessment, we were told, would be entirely by end of course examination, and there would be a new grading system. The current A-E scale will be replaced by a numerical scale, 8-1, where 8 represented the highest achievement.
I have recently published a paper analysing in detail the professional views of the 730 English teachers who responded to an online survey on the government’s current changes to teacher training. Trying to find a title for the paper, I came up with “Surveying the Wreckage”. These changes to teacher-training, which shift the burden of responsibility from university Departments of Education to the schools, in which trainees will normally be employed as unqualified teachers, are regarded by the vast majority of respondents to the survey as disastrous. Now we have to contemplate 50 years’ work improving assessments, making them more fit for purpose, making them more sensitive to the range of real life work that pupils will undertake, being similarly wrecked effectively by the fiat of one man, Michael Gove.
The intellectual paucity of these proposals is signified by the absurd belief that changing the assessment system from an alphabetical to a numerical progression will somehow improve matters. What matters is the kind of work that students are asked to do, and the way it is assessed. Certainly, moving from an alphabetical system where A (a letter universally recognised as signifying high achievement) is replaced by the number 8, has less than nothing to recommend it. One understands that room has been left for the addition of further numbers in the future, to allow for a further refinement of the grading system. A kind of institutionalised grade inflation, in fact.
David Cameron must call in his Secretary of State for Education and prevent him from single-handedly destroying cultures of teaching and assessment that have been constructed over many years by professionals concerned to improve the education of young people. Rab Butler tells in his autobiography The Art of the Possible of the day in 1942 when Winston Churchill, Prime Minister during the Second World War, asked him whether there was anything that could be done to make schoolchildren more patriotic. Butler told him that the curriculum was the responsibility of the schools and that ministers should not interfere. Churchill rejoined: “Oh, quite. But can’t we at least tell them that Wolfe won Québec?”
An element of Conservative reticence, building on rather than destroying the best that has been thought and said, would be welcome at present.