That Key Stage 4 consultation document: How can something so annoying be so boring?

At 9am this morning I found myself in a meeting where it transpired that I was expected to have already trawled through the DfE’s Reforming Key Stage 4 Qualifications consultation document. Due to unforeseen circumstances (otherwise known as blogging about bitchy feminists) I, um, hadn’t. It didn’t matter though. I managed to wing it. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what EBCs are (hell, I could do it and I don’t even have O-levels). Besides, reading the document in advance would have just been cheating, rather like using “source materials” as an “examination aid” while sitting a history paper (I do, by the way, look forward to future history questions: What does the artist in this cartoon – the one which you’re not allowed to see – wish to suggest about Disraeli’s foreign policy? Failure to happen to imagine the correct cartoon will result in no marks.)

I did spend a little time this afternoon catching up on the document. I say “a little time” because there wasn’t really much to catch up on. It’s not any better or worse or indeed different to what I expected. A Daily Telegraph-style preamble about the loss of confidence in GCSEs and the ever-present “race to the bottom” – complete with Daily Mail-esque statistical analysis, revealing that exams are getting easier because people who are told on a daily basis that this is the case also happen to believe it – followed by a proposal to restore rigour and enable us to compete with all “high performing jurisdictions” (wherever they may be – I’d love it if Dagobah was one – and whatever odds and ends we’ve cherry-picked from each – ideally this includes Yoda-like Jedi wisdom). And then there’s some rebranding – English Baccalaureate Certificate for our six “serious” subject areas, plus the Statement of Achievement for those who would otherwise leave school empty-handed (since a bit of stigma’s better than nothing).

What I really hate about documents such as this – other than the fact that they’re boring – is that they put me on the back foot as a liberal hand-wringer. I know what I’m meant to say, about elitism and backward-looking traditionalism and failing to cater for the majority of children, and I agree with it all. In particular, it infuriates me to think of those pupils who haven’t yet started their GCSE courses, or are still midway though, who will be forced to plod through to the end with “it’s discredited” ringing in their ears. This is not right. At the same time, I like grammar and rigour, and genuinely do believe controlled assessment is rather rubbish. Plus I’d like there to be more of an incentive for pupils to study MFL. In short, I would like pupils to have more of an opportunity to be like me. Hence in certain respects, Michael Gove, c’est moi (except he’d say that in Latin, which I don’t know).

It’s terribly frustrating to not be able to have a full-on tantrum about all this, though. I read through the consultation paper and the best I can come up with is “yeah, but what you really mean is…”, which just makes me sound like some mad conspiracy theorist. The paper fails to be full-on offensive because that would require some element of surprise. The proposal is narrow-minded, lacking in imagination and reads as thought it’s been written in a complete hurry with only a Radio 5 Live phone-in for reference (lots of older people moaning about how hard their exams were, some bloke from the CBI whinging about how inadequate today’s school leavers are, plus one priggish 17-year old whining about how let down he felt by having to take such piss-easy exams). People have always come out with this crap, as this excellent editorial in the TES illustrates. I’m not saying GCSEs haven’t necessarily become easier to pass or that they don’t need to change. But this low-grade ranting is so far beneath what our young people – who should apparently be, if not learning effectively in contexts that matter, then at least limbering up to take on the international “competition” in arbitrary tests – truly deserve.

I don’t know. Perhaps Michael Gove was having a classic Oxbridge essay crisis when he wrote this. I certainly wouldn’t give it any more than a Statement of Achievement. But before anyone suggests I’m just some wussy liberal, well, I’m not. You know people who can’t stop using the phrase “dumbing down”? There are times when I truly believe they’re thick as pigshit.*

* Not that I’m the arbiter of who is and isn’t clever. I think that’s Stephen Fry or something.

6 thoughts on “That Key Stage 4 consultation document: How can something so annoying be so boring?

  1. If one exam board provides the materials and awards the certificates for 5 years how are other exam boards going to survive? Do they make everybody redundant? Do they put their employees on ‘gardening leave’ until the tender’s up for grabs again? Or will we be left with one exam board, controlled by the government?

    Also, I’ve seen the amount of paperwork that’s thrown at schools now – how much will all this cost? The rebranding will be a nightmare.

    1. At one stage I heard that one exam board sets the syllabus but others will be allowed to set papers and provide support (although what “support” is now permitted to be, I don’t know). My understanding was that dfferent exam boards could be in charge of different subjects, with each deciding which to tender for (I think) – but surely it is perfectly possible that some boards will end up with nothing? So I don’t *think* one exam board is currently a likelihood, but I’m not sure what’s in place to stop that happening in theory…

      1. It still has the same problems though, or maybe I don’t get it (I’ve avoided reading a lot about it). If, for example, there is one exam board for English & one for MFL it could result in the MFL exam board competing against the English exam board (after 5 years) if it felt it could provide a better English syllabus, it could win the rights to English (because it was a better exam board) but would then have to drop MFL (poor MFL).  Or, more likely, there would be 0 change and competition because the excluded exam boards will suffer financially and the included exam boards would concentrate on their subject area without any competition.  If Gove’s telling us that exam boards aren’t comparable – some are easier, some harder – then there will still be weaker and stronger exam boards within the new system, however we look at it (and, it seems, lots of redundancies for those who don’t make it). 

        He needs to chill out and gradually change things – why don’t we start with compulsory MFL to 16 and the removal of controlled assessments? 

        1. He needs to chill out and gradually change things – why don’t we start with compulsory MFL to 16 and the removal of controlled assessments?

          That would seem dangerously like doing what actual teachers want for the good of their learners… I don’t really get it, either. I can see competition in the first round but then how would the boards have maintained the resources to compete in the second (rather than just retracting to see themselves as “the board for science and maths”, for instance)? Besides, current exam boards can’t just offer anything unapproved in this apparent “race to the bottom” – isn’t the problem then with Ofqual?

          It also annoys me that there’s no nuance in this “everything’s too easy” discussion, when severe grading in MFL compared to other subjects has long been a justifiable concern.

    1. “It also annoys me that there’s no nuance in this “everything’s too easy” discussion, when severe grading in MFL compared to other subjects has long been a justifiable concern.”

      I know, especially for teachers who deliver subjects without coursework or controlled assessments, but it’s all relative to an extent. The majority, if not all, complete controlled assessments in certain subject areas. External invigilators would make a difference and then the kids can show off another skill which, in all honesty, is a skill most employers want.

      Anyway, scrapping coursework and controlled assessment’s cheaper and Tories love saving money. Simple.

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