A doublethink …


At a time when GCSE league tables have been published, this seemed an obvious topic of discussion but I would like to take a slightly different take on the story –that these tables have provided a fine an example of Government doublethink that even George Orwell would have been proud of it.

In my first year as Headmaster of St Martha’s I was invited to a lunch with the former Education Secretary Michael Gove. This was an event where there were a number of leaders of schools and he took the opportunity to try and persuade maintained schools to take the international alternative, the iGCSE, following the independent sector which had turned to it in a big way. iGCSEs were, in general, felt to be more appropriate to more able candidates: more traditionally content-heavy than the GCSE; assessed by a single terminal examination; and free of the coursework that bedevilled GCSE, taking children out of subject teaching for weeks at a time while they completed it under strict supervision in school time.

Here’s the doublethink. The Government is now pouring scorn on iGCSE. In a cunning bit of wording, current Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, proclaimed that she had rid the Government’s performance tables of “valueless qualifications”. Cleverly she didn’t mention iGCSE specifically, lumping it instead with other perhaps unlamented qualifications while simultaneously, and rightly, removing opportunities for endless re-sits.

In the removal of recognition from some of those English or Maths iGCSEs there was a subtle implication that they no longer had currency. The message was that the newly Government-beefed-up GCSE is the answer: all other qualifications are inferior.

As spats go, it was a minor one. It was also an own goal by Government. So absurd is it to see Eton College at the bottom of the league tables that the DfE’s changes have effectively rendered its own performance tables meaningless.

But is iGCSE now easier than the new GCSE? And is that a turnaround from the position where independent schools first, and then many maintained schools, chose it precisely because it was that bit more challenging? The jury’s out. Schools won’t start teaching the new “new” GCSEs, all linear courses, until September 2015: the much-vaunted “toughening-up” of last year’s GCSE results was mere tinkering.

At St Martha’s subject departments, as the specialists, decide what qualifications they enter their students for, whether it’s GCSE, iGCSE, A level, international A level or Pre-U.

It may be that, as the new schemes of work appear, some subjects will say that they prefer the new GCSE specification for their subject: if they do, they’ll be free to choose it.

In any case, it’s not really about allegedly “easier” or “more difficult” exams. The message we give the St Martha’s staff is to find courses that will give our girls a good grasp of the content and grammar of the subject, provide appropriate ranges of stretch and challenge, furnish a strong basis for further study at A level, and be reliably assessed and efficiently marked.

Perhaps Nicky Morgan has grounds for her supreme confidence, though I don’t share it. In truth, I’m surprised her current Sir Humphrey didn’t sidle up to her and quietly say, “That’s a courageous comment, Secretary of State”. And we all know what happens to politicians unwise enough to be courageous…


Matthew Burke

10/02/2015 Comments (0)