The liberalism of Gove: Why we should cautiously welcome the abandonment of GCSEs

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.

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13 thoughts on “The liberalism of Gove: Why we should cautiously welcome the abandonment of GCSEs

  1. I don’t see what is liberal about stifling the aspirations of those who, admittedly, may have struggled in a certain subject area and make the assumption that their achievements at a certain point will reflect their future abilities.

    I had always struggled with Science in secondary school and under these proposals I may well have been put into one of these “CSE” classes at a young age. However, with a bit of self belief and encouragement from my teachers I managed to get full marks on the foundation GCSE paper bringing an overall grade up to a B, a lot higher than what had been originally predicted for me. I see nothing “liberal” about these proposals or Michael Gove.

    1. But you’re assuming that those aspirations are uniformly academic, and that the only path to academic success is to get into O levels and then shoot off to university. That, surely, is illiberal.

      Let’s say you need a bit of help with the basics of, say, math (Which I did). There’s no point taking a GCSE H paper and struggling, you’re much better off focusing on the essentials in a CSE paper. If you’ve grasped them, and, let’s say, got a highest mark in that CSE paper, then surely that provides a basis for further study. Under the old CSE/O level system, if you got a 1 in a CSE paper, that’s O level standard and evidence of O level ability.

  2. The liberal democratic party is destroying itself. This is simply another nail in the coffin. Thought leaders within the party softening up the masses for the eventual support of a highly elitist and misguided policy that will be condemn a generation of 14 year olds to a lifetime of missed opportunities

  3. Sean can’t even get the party’s name right – unless he’s talking about the Japanese LDP.

    I think his political analysis can thus be safely rubbished.

  4. Fundamentally what is wrong before we even look into the detail of this policy is the plotting and scheming on the part of Gove to get this past the Lib Dems without properly consulting with them. If any Tory tries to do that why should they assume we will support them? On principle we should not, or else they will keep on doing it on the assumption they will get away with it.
    After that the author makes all kinds of assumptions about how good the policy will be but he ignores the Conservative philosophy behind it. Gove appears to want a kind of academic elitism, which no doubt reinforces his own high opinion of himself. The Lib Dem critique that this inhibits social mobility is a key one, just think how ridiculous we will look if by 2015 we cannot say we have improved social mobility?

    1. Well, you have me and Dan here who agree with it, and so does @Zadok_ afaik, so to say the right disagrees with it, is a bit disingenuous Conor.

  5. I totally disagree with you and dislike your ridiculous comment about “facetiously Marxist attacks”. I agree with Nick Clegg that Goves proposals are unfair, illiberal and would restrict social mobility. Maybe you are a facetious right wing Tory?!!

    1. Rob, I’m not in the business of moderating comments upon the blog, but you are obviously trying to insult the author with the last sentence. Please remember to stay polite, all members have the right to express their opinions without insult

      1. I am not trying to insult anyone, though I would politely suggest that you and the author of this article should read the preamble to the Party Constitution and long standing Lib Dem Education principles and policies. My last sentence was a sarcastic comment with reference to the author inferring that critics of Goves right wing Education policies are “facetiously Marxist” which is frankly ridiculous. It is not meant as a personal insult and I am sorry if it was read as such.

    2. How would they restrict social mobility exactly? Firstly, you’re assuming the only route to social mobility is through academic achievement. Okay, let’s run with that. If you want to use this as a way to bypass the circumstances of birth, surely it’s best to nurture those who have the ability to get excellent grades. In GCSE, they were often stuck in with those that either needed a bit of extra help, or were disruptive or had other problems. So they were subjected to a whirlwind of distractions and social pressures. If you have a child who finds a class so easy that they’re bored and can’t be bothered to listen in the same classroom as someone who’s disruptive, guess who they’re going to be influenced by? Under the new system, both problems, those of the struggling child and those of the bored academic child will be fixed because the former will be getting help in the CSE class and the latter will be being stretched in the O level. Both will get the attention they need to succeed, and the latter will, regardless of their social background, have the opportunity to get the highest grades and follow the traditional route to escaping their less than privileged circumstances.

      You’re also making the mistake that I hinted on to begin with that there’s only one academic route to escaping the inequalities of birth. Nonsense. A formerly struggling child properly educated with the basics will then be properly prepared to do anything they want with their lives. There’s no reason why they couldn’t continue on to take O levels after they’ve caught up, even. and then go on to A levels and University. Or, equally, they could start a business, succeed through a trade etc.

      Finally, I called those attacks ‘facetiously marxist’ because they, like you, instinctively dismiss any reform made by a conservative as indicative of your assumptions of how they will conduct themselves through your assumptions of their social background, while simultaneously failing to critically engage with the proposals beyond these antiquated attacks.

      1. I havent really got the time to reply to you in detail. I just feel that your arguments are essentially elitist and out of touch. Yes, I am one of the approx 90% of the population who went to a Comprehensive School and am still a great believer in the principles behind the comprehensive system. Also equal opportunities for all within the education system. That may sound a little old fashioned to you but I dont like the way that wealthy people can just buy success for their children.

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