On the principle that you should know your enemy, I’ve spent the last few days trying to work out where the critics of Michael Gove’s GCSE reforms are coming from. Why does anyone object to introducing more rigour into the classroom?
Just to be clear, the last government presided over a period of relentless dumbing down. As GCSE results continually improved, England plummeted in the OECD’s international league tables. In 2000, our 15-year-olds were eighth in the world for maths. By 2009, they’d fallen to 27th.
So there’s no question something needs to be done and, on the face of it, Gove’s reforms are just the ticket: insisting on just one exam board to stop the race to the bottom; limiting the top grade to the very best instead of handing it out like confetti to a quarter of all pupils; and encouraging teachers to focus on a core of academic subjects by introducing the English Baccalaureate.
It’s this last proposal that has enraged Gove’s critics the most. To refresh your memory, the proposal is that an EBacc will be awarded to children who get a grade C or above in English, maths, a humanities subject, a language and at least two science subjects.
There are three objections to this.
The first is that it’s draconian. Why should schools be forced to teach all children such a narrow range of subjects? What’s wrong with their media studies and sociology? When faced with this argument, I gently point out that no one’s suggesting the EBacc subjects should be mandatory. Schools won’t be put into special measures if the percentage of pupils getting an EBacc falls below a certain threshold. The proposal is simply to include an EBacc column in the school league tables, thereby providing parents with one more piece of information when choosing where to send their children.
Doesn’t matter, say the critics. The fact that Gove has endorsed the EBacc will mean headteachers will prioritise traditional, academic subjects at the expense of trendy, softer ones.
Funnily enough, the people making this argument are often headteachers themselves. What they’re saying, in effect, is that they’re such quislings — so incapable of resisting the iron will of the Secretary of State — that the EBacc might as well be mandatory.
Well, we can only hope that’s true. Which brings me to the second objection, namely, that a majority of English schoolchildren aren’t capable of getting an EBacc. That’s why it’s so ‘elitist’, apparently. It’s gearing our public education system to the needs of the few, not the many.
Andy Burnham, back when he was in charge of Labour’s education brief, used to make this point and it always sounded to me like he was saying working-class children are far too stupid to get a C in a subject like French. Better to let them drop the foreign language requirement and do a BTEC in how to claim the dole instead. (I’m not making that last qualification up, by the way.) That’s not ‘elitist’. Oh no. That’s ‘inclusive’.
The third objection — and this is the heart of the matter — is that schools shouldn’t be in the business of passing on knowledge at all. Introducing the EBacc involves prioritising one set of facts over another and, in the eyes of the teaching unions, that’s tantamount to fascism. Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teacher and Lecturers, spelt this out. ‘For the state to suggest that some knowledge should be privileged over other knowledge is a bit totalitarian in a 21st-century environment,’ he said.
So there you have it. In the post-modernist universe occupied by defenders of GCSEs, teaching knowledge is old hat. So what would Mr Johnson have schools teach instead? Why, life skills, of course.
‘There’s a lot to learn about how to walk,’ he told the Guardian in 2007. ‘If you were going out for a Sunday afternoon stroll you might walk one way. If you’re trying to catch a train you might walk in another way and if you are doing a cliff walk you might walk in another way. If you are carrying a pack, there’s a technique in that. We need a nation of people who understand their bodies and can use their bodies effectively.’
Sounds like a piece of Swiftian satire, but no. That’s what the objectors to Michael Gove’s GCSE reforms really think. Forget about teaching children the best that’s been thought and written — that’s just for public school toffs. Ordinary children should be taught how to walk.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 22 September 2012