I was beginning to feel quite warm towards Michael Gove’s plans for more varied qualifications within schools, and then I thought more about the detail. It seems that the proposals to bring back the O-level involve potentially highly damaging government intervention in the education system – and that is a bad starting point for any reform.
Over the last couple of decades we have seen the gradual nationalisation of curricula and examining boards. Under the influence of the governments of the 1990s, boards producing most of the exams ceased to be run directly by universities with a strong interest in the quality of qualifications and, in some cases, became run by commercial organisations. There is nothing wrong with this in principle. However, at the same time, the Government introduced league tables based on high-level summary measures of performance in the new government-imposed examinations.
There is almost an exact analogy here with what went wrong with the credit rating agencies and their rating of bonds before the financial crisis. Bond ratings were used to determine banks’ regulatory capital and the agencies had an incentive to focus not on the quality of the rating process but on ensuring that there was a high rating – their incentives were distorted with serious consequences. In education, the quality of qualifications has become secondary to ensuring that enough passes are achieved at the right level to get a school up the league tables: and the boards respond.
Personally, I think other factors are at work in the improvement in exam results as well – such as children and teachers becoming better at preparing for exams in an era where transparency demands more predictability in exam questions – but league table races are surely important in creating the “competitive race to the bottom” that Mr Gove has described. That race to the bottom, of course, has been encouraged by the Minister’s own continued and renewed focus on the very-high-level summary measure of achievement, the so-called English Baccalaureate.
This is a genuine dilemma, and I do not envy the Minister. The government does not seem ready to fully free the education sector and parents. Meanwhile, how do you hold state schools to account whilst not destroying the meaning of the measure that you are encouraging schools to target and by which you measure their performance?
This article originally appeared on Conservative Home. You can continue reading here.