By Dan Waterfield
As is usual in Liberal and left-wing circles whenever Michael Gove deigns to think, he has been met with rancorous uproar, the latest cause? his recent plans to scrap GCSEs and reintroduce a system of O levels and CSEs. However, a natural inclination to be sceptical of Conservative education policy is blinding us to the liberal ends that Gove’s plans have the potential to nurture.
The aim of our current education system is, ostensibly, to prepare children for the world of work and as such to equip them with basic numeracy and literacy at the very least. While many of us rightly feel that such utilitarian attitudes to education are narrow and cloying, we must accept that this is the primary goal of our current system.
At the risk of being cliché, it is quite obvious to anyone who has taken a passing interest in education to see that the current system that is supposed to prepare children in the way that employers supposedly want is not fit for purpose, as a cursory glance at recent reports demonstrates. Gove’s attempts to realign secondary education with its stated goal are therefore not particularly as radical as they might first appear.
Instead, most criticism has come from those who claim that it will inextricably divide children at 14 into winners and losers, thereby entrenching class difference in the roads to success. But these arguments, I believe, rest on fundamentally illiberal principals, as well as being facetiously Marxist attacks on a genuine attempt to provide the space for children to succeed.
To see this, we need to acknowledge first of all that the failure of the current GCSE system, despite its accommodations in the form of three tiered papers, it fails to cater for a child’s progression and personal methods of learning. If a child does not show a particular aptitude with, say, mathematics, then surely it does not make sense to move on to more complex things when they have barely mastered addition, division and multiplication? To do so implies that in the world of work which they are apparently being prepared for, they will need quadratic equations and algebra more than they will rely day to day on knowing the maths that underpin finance.
Similarly, a child struggling with expressing itself in fluent, grammatically correct sentences will of course struggle to understand poetry and the great novels. Surely it is cruel to expect her or him to sit the same exam as a child that has mastered these skills early, whether from talent or upbringing, and have them both write on Tennyson. The failure that this will inevitably produce will cement the child’s perception of itself as failing. Not that complex math and the joys of poetry are not important, because they are, and critically so. But it serves no purpose whatsoever to have them supersede the basics of everyday life.
Instead, we as liberals need to remember that not every person follows or will want to follow the same path in life and the current blanket system of GCSEs not only assumes this, but imposes a cultural straightjacket of uniformity. Instead, the proposed changes will, at the bare minimum, equip those who the current system has failed and give them the basic skills to progress through any path they wish in life.
The classics along with advanced mathematics will still be there for those in O-Level classes and they will not suffer by being subjected to them before they have the skills necessary to enjoy them. Michael Gove should therefore be congratulated on focusing on equipping children with the basic skills necessary to realise their full potential, which in turn allows them to deal with the world and live their lives as they wish and without being bound by the circumstances in which they were born.