Sunday, 24 June 2012

Role models, greedy comics and the death of the GCSE, maybe

Get out the black bordered notepaper the GCSE is dead and standing over its still warm corpse holding a smoking gun is Education Secretary Michael Gove. When the news broke it was a scoop for the press and the most awful surprise for the Deputy PM and Lib Dem Schools Minister Sara Tether; neither of whom, it seems are on the ambitious Mr Gove’s mailing list.

The plan is to replace GCSE’s with something similar to the old O Levels with an equivalent to the CSE for ‘less able’ students. If you think this sounds like a toxic mixture of misplaced nostalgia and political opportunism, you’re probably right to do so.

It isn’t that the GCSE wasn’t ready to go and meet its maker, for years it is a qualification that has been tottering under the weight of ministerial tinkering. What isn’t at all clear is how the proposed ‘great leap backwards’ represents any kind of workable solution.

The claim is that by returning to a system where the ‘clever’ kids do exams and all the rest do woodwork or cookery will somehow usher in a return of academic rigour; it will do nothing of a sort. Exams test the retention of facts, which is a useful part of the learning process, it is not though the whole picture, understanding and organising information is also important and that’s where coursework comes into its own. What has driven rigour out of the system is the obsession with league tables that has gripped educationalists and politicians for the past quarter century.

For all its faults the GCSE did manage to combine both aspects and, if reformed sensibly, could still be the basis of a successful secondary education system. That won’t happen though because whether or not these latest reforms go ahead this isn’t about education for all; it’s about the ambition of one man.

If Michael Gove were really concerned about increasing opportunity and social mobility through education he wouldn’t be tinkering with GCSE’s or demanding that children learn to chant their times tables. He’d be working night and day to create a system of vocational education that was equal in quality and esteem to academic education and promoting the notion that education is a whole of life project not something that is over and done by the time you turn eighteen.

He isn’t interested in any of those things though; not one little bit. What he’s doing instead is making an extended pitch to the Tory grassroots that he is a potential future party leader and maybe even Prime Minister. His method of choice for doing so is to attack notions of ‘equality’ that make his audience foam at the mouth.

He and they are wrong, equality isn’t and never has been about treating everybody in the same way regardless of whether or not that it the right thing to do. It is about respecting the value and benefits brought by different abilities and experiences. When I need a drain unblocking I don’t call a philosopher; when I need my existential angst exploring I don’t send for the local carpenter, like all sensible people I want to see the right person doing the right job.

That’s probably why if you want to see real educational reform an ambitious politician like Michael Gove is very much the wrong person to call.

No laughing matter

The comedian Jimmy Carr was morally, if not legally, wrong to use a sneaky offshore fund to dodge paying his full tax bill and Prime Minister David Cameron was right to point that out.

To his credit Carr has held up his hands, admitted his mistake and shown a level of humility that is at odds with his stage persona. I do wonder though whether Citizen Dave might have made a rod for his own back by being so quick to pass comment.

Will he, you wonder, take a similarly censorious line over the tax affairs of his chums in the Chipping Norton set as he has over those of a comedian who would, probably, sooner saw off his own head than vote Conservative?

It is a question someone is bound to ask and he will probably be embarrassed by the answer.

A model but not a role model

It may be a sign of early onset fogeyism but until this week I had no idea who Kim Kardashian was.

Now thanks to an intervention by Dr Helen Wright, head teacher of an exclusive girl’s school in Wiltshire, I know that she is an icon of ‘meanness, scandal and boundary-less living’ and as such is the worst role model (ever) for young girls.

It would, of course, be so much better if young girls, and young boys too for that matter, chose more responsible role models. Perhaps a nice competent middle manager or even the head teacher of an exclusive girl’s school in Wiltshire, but that isn’t ever going to happen.

The reason young people look up to the likes of Kim Kardashian, Wayne Rooney et al is precisely because their parents and teachers get so hot under the collar over their doing so. If Dr Wright really wants to destroy La Kardashian’s power over her students by making her terminally uncool then she should embrace her and all her works.

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