Beyond the smokescreen

Dr Bernard Trafford, Headmaster of Newcastle's Royal Grammar School and former Chairman of  HMC talks about his personal views on exam reform in the TES, 09/11/12.

"Critical to reform is ending an examination system that has narrowed the curriculum, forced idealistic professionals to teach to the test and encouraged heads to offer children the softest possible options," said education secretary Michael Gove when he announced his plans for English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) to replace GCSEs.

I have no objection to the concept of a core curriculum: the damage is done only when government insists on league tables that are based on them. At that point, the core becomes the only part that's valued.

That pressure is what creates the three problems outlined by Gove. It narrows the curriculum because schools, under the Ofsted cosh, concentrate on them. Consequently, teachers are obliged to take a tick-box approach to teaching.

We are moving towards the tick-box-style exams that will get candidates over the tick-box hurdle of government benchmarks. For any minister of the past 20 years to present himself as liberating teachers and allowing them to be creative is a fairly grotesque kind of posturing.

Gove castigates those who push children towards easier exams. But if you're a leader and your job, your teachers' jobs and much else depends on hitting those targets, wouldn't you be tempted in some cases? I might. I never judge heads in those positions, because I'm lucky enough not to live with that pressure.

I wish I could feel optimistic about the GCSE replacement, and about the reform of A levels that will follow. But the new structure is proposed on the basis of solving a bogus and politically contrived set of problems.

Without root-and-branch reform, our exam structure faces collapse. But the proposed EBC system is a house built on sand: as the scripture says, "mighty was the fall thereof".

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