Degrading the past, devaluing the future

It’s all about ‘education, education, education’ a famous politician once said. Given the mess we’re now in it’s hard to say whether he was right – perhaps those he educated (x3) have yet to take centre stage and revitalise the economy. In which case I hope they get a move on.

In politics it seems that it is hard to take a long term view, this may be due to the temporary nature of Government and the belief that the impact has to be achieved within one term or a second becomes unlikely. It is clear that Govt. depts. think like this and cabinet ministers more so. Their next appointment rests on having been seen to achieve something – often different to actually achieving anything.

There can be few other reasons for the attention that education ministers past and present give to the issue of examinations and marking systems. They clearly think that this is something we all understand and that by trying to have an impact upon it they can garner our support.

As ever what is less clear to the untrained eye is whether the tinkering really makes any difference. Education has clearly improved and the school system appears to be producing children with more qualifications at higher grades. Apparently this isn’t good enough and fails to produce the right type of ‘graduate’ – or so the current incumbent in the ministry would have us believe.
I confess to a polarised view on this, partly driven by observation of my children’s education and the memory of my own rather inadequate one. My daughter reaches the end of her GCSE exams this week and my son’s are two years away. What Michael Gove seems to be attempting threatens the essence of what they've achieved, rendering the qualifications (if not the whole school experience) pretty much worthless.

Does replacing A-D with 1-8 really make any difference? I don’t believe so. Does the process of swapping a part-coursework based curriculum with an all-in exam really reflect what happens in the workplace? I suspect it’s the opposite – most of my experience in the workplace suggests you work on projects with varying deadlines and that coursework is more reflective of that. I knew a few kids in my school that could coast through the final two years because they were good at ‘cramming’ for exams. Does that make them better employees than someone who is studious over a long period but poor at exams?

If Gove were presenting this policy as an exam answer he’d be required to show his ‘workings-out’, where is the statistical evidence that employers, parents or educators want these changes?

Taking a simplistic view on this I believe that what employers actually need is consistency, an understanding of the grading system and how it compares with past and present. It shouldn't be difficult to achieve this if things were a bit clearer – is an A grade reflective of the top 20% of students who sat that exam? If so it’s not relevant for it to be changed to a numeric grade, it makes no difference.

What is important is that it is possible for an employer to look at the school grades of someone in their 20s and be able to rationally compare them with the exams and grades of someone in their 30s or 40s – wherever they’re from in the UK or elsewhere. If it isn’t then the qualifications are invalid and it all reverts to basics – experience, appearance and other standard aspects.

With an apparently vast number of applicants for every available job it seems to me that employers look for CVs and letters that answer the brief of the job advert/specifications after first routinely rejecting ones with basic errors like spelling, grammar, untidiness.

Is it the content that’s more relevant than the qualification? I couldn’t help that notice my daughter’s maths exam today contains a lot of stuff that I also part-learned and never used once I stepped out of education. Perhaps it should be less about pi and Pythagoras and more about ROI, AER, P/E ratio and the like, things that may be relevant to more people in modern life? That would seem to be part of a natural evolution which probably already takes place but doesn’t need a change in the overall structure.

This is Gove’s second (or third?) attempt to fix something that isn't broken. The less charitable among us might think that it has more to do with his legacy than that of future generations, something that he can point at on his CV when the leader’s job becomes vacant. He went to Oxford so I guess his ‘O Level’ results won’t be of relevance, funny that.