Earlier this week Michael Gove announced a proposed reform of GCSEs to a new English Baccalaureate Certificate or EBacc for short. At its heart is the concern that standards have slipped and grades inflated since the inception of GCSEs in 1985.
I welcome the move towards a more rigorous approach and would like to see an increased emphasis on pupils having to think independently and apply their learning. One concern about GCSEs is that they can be a memory test and, as a result, do not require deeper thinking skills. The nature of the exam has a direct influence on how pupils are taught. Good teachers have always required their classes to engage with the material and think for themselves so there is an opportunity here to create a system which promotes this style of learning. This has several benefits; it is a more interesting way to learn, pupils learn better when they have to personally engage and it is a better preparation for the skills they will need in their careers.
I hope the government will engage collaboratively with schools in developing new exams. Sadly, Michael Gove has developed the reputation of the all-seeing eye who hands down pronouncements for others to follow. He will find there is a great deal to be gained from working with schools and professional associations and for this to be a success it must be achieved with schools, not done to them.
My main concern though is that he is not being bold enough. The first exams in the EBacc will be sat in 2017 (by those currently in Year 7) in English, Maths and the Sciences. They will be joined later by History, Geography and Modern Languages. If the new exams are to be considered as a gold standard then this means a situation where there will be some subjects seen as 'proper' and others as 'lesser'. If the new approach is right, then it must be right for all subjects. The list of proposed subjects for the EBacc represents a limited curriculum and one subject in particular is missing in my view. Religious Studies - by its very nature - encourages and requires critical thinking, a philosophical perspective and engagement with the material. Perhaps it might provide an interesting starting point for this brave new world.