The Ebacc: If we reform exams, we must also reform teaching
Whilst eating my breakfast and reading Michael Gove’s statement on the Ebacc, I had to pinch myself to make sure I had really woken up. Two weeks into term, I am reacclimatised with the dreary thoughtworld of contemporary state schools, a thoughtworld of behaviour management, active learning and developing self and others. Even coming from Gove, it was remarkable to read language so diametrically opposed to contemporary state education: ‘knowledge’; ‘rigour’; ‘academic expertise’; ‘ambitious’.
Yesterday’s Commons statement laid out an extremely brave set of reforms. Scrapping the multiple exam boards, raising the top bar of grades, and focusing on academic knowledge are all necessary moves. I am thankful we currently have a Secretary of State for Education willing to make them, and combat what he describes as ‘drift, decline and dumbing down’. However, in this blog posting I must sound a note of caution.
It would be a shame if Gove, and his friends at the DfE, fall for the Whitehall delusion that pulling levers in London can make root and branch changes to what happens in classrooms around the country. Behind Gove’s statement is a dangerous assumption that schools are easily manipulated organisms. Simply by making exams more rigorous, teaching will also become more rigorous. At the rate things are going, it will not.
If state schools are going to meet the challenge of Gove’s academically ambitious Ebacc, their entire child-centred teaching orthodoxy will have to be overturned. State schools will quite simply fail to make the grade if they do not give up many of the ‘progressive’ assumptions about teaching which have become so ingrained in the sector. Most of these assumptions I have criticised elsewhere, but here, in brief, are a few of the worst:
- Skills are more important than knowledge.
- Firm discipline is unfair on children.
- Homework is not that important.
- Marking should not harm pupil self-esteem.
- Active learning is better than passive learning.
- Above all, lessons should be relevant and fun.
The only troubling part of Gove’s statement was towards the end, where he combated the criticism that these reforms will lead to ‘more students failing’. He claimed that ‘we have the best generation of teachers and headteachers we have ever had’, and that a mixture of better training and academies mean that teaching will inevitably improve. This, quite frankly, is wishful thinking. In fact, we have a generation of teachers and headteachers who have made their careers under the influence of child-centred pedagogy. Those who have swum against the tide are the exception, not the norm. Harder exams will not, on their own, change this. A completely new culture of teaching will also have to develop, and such a culture shift will be far harder to enact than simply changing the nature of exams. However, if this does not happen, increased student failure will sadly be the most immediate consequence of Gove’s reform.