With the news headlines dominated by George Osborne’s latest efforts to kill the poor (sorry, “balance the budget”), today was the perfect day for esteemed Education Secretary (and premiere Pob impersonator) Michael Gove to spend an unnoticed hour and a half practising his skills at obfuscation at the Education Select Committee.
I’ve written before about my (generally poor) opinion of Gove’s proposed reforms, which seem to be a combination of throwing qualifications back to the 1950s while simultaneously selling off the nation’s education infrastructure to the highest bidder. I’m glad to see that some in officialdom are equally concerned – not least of them being Ofqual, the regulatory body charged with overseeing standards in qualifications.
At about the 10.31.30 timestamp in that committee recording, Gove is asked by the chairman, Conservative MP Graham Stuart, what concerns Ofqual has expressed. Gove then spends the better part of ten minutes avoiding the question, which is repeatedly put to him by the chairman and then by other members of the panel. He admits that Ofqual have sent him a letter; asked about its contents, he flat out refuses to divulge them – “don’t want to put words into Ofqual’s mouth”, “confidential correspondence”, “you’d have to ask the regulator” etc, despite being repeatedly pressed for the fine distinction of his own understanding of what it contained. It was a fine slippery performance, worthy of Sir Humphrey Appleby at his best.
Gove then goes on to parrot his usual highly selective “evidence” that he claims will justify doing what he always said he wanted to do in the first place, assuring the committee that he’ll be happy to come back and discuss Ofqual’s reservations should they choose to make them public. Which, perhaps unfortunately for him, they have now done as of today, making the letter to which he refers freely available to all and sundry on their public website.
This is actually quite damning in various ways. Firstly, it makes a nonsense of his repeated refusal to discuss their concerns on the grounds of confidentiality, making it a tacit accusation of brazen obfuscation. Secondly, Ofqual have been widely decried in the press as being far from the independent regulator they purport to be, more a sort of rubber stamp for Gove’s ambitions; with their Chief Regulator Glenys Stacey oft-portrayed as, at best, an unwilling puppet of Gove’s. That one of his supposedly staunchest allies should pretty publicly defy him in this way, while it could be seen as an attempt at self-defence, is hardly an endorsement of his agenda. It certainly undercuts his repeated (and distorted) references to their surveys to back up his proposals.
But while the fact of the letter’s release to the public is in itself a slap in the face, take a look at its actual contents. Ofqual’s misgivings, not that far from my own and those of many education professionals, are pretty serious, and would give many a less dogmatically obsessed minister pause for thought.
They take care to applaud Gove’s publicly stated aims (ie, “better qualifications for everybody”, which is a pretty vague and meaningless proposal without specifics). But they then go on to express reservations about “both short and long term problems”, saying his cherished EBCs “may exceed what is realistically achievable for a single assessment” as methods of untiered assessment accessible to the whole range of students and as a measure of school performance. “Our advice,” they state diplomatically, “is that there are no precedents that show that a single assessment could successfully fulfil all these purposes”. In the Yes Minister coded language utilised throughout, they might go on to inform him that it was a “very courageous” policy.
They also point out that while subjectively marked qualifications like English are far from a reliable performance indicator right now, Gove’s supposedly “rigorous” new EBC would by its very nature be even less reliable. They then refer to a recently expressed preference from schools regulator Ofsted for “more frequent progress testing as part of accountability measurement”. In a nutshell, they seem to be saying that Gove’s determination to have children tested with one brutal exam at the age of 16 is a far less valid measurement of performance – for schools, and by extension, their pupils – than the current system of continuous assessment provided by modular qualifications and coursework.
Earlier the letter expresses (justifiable) concern about the consistent ability of teachers to cope with yet another massive, fundamental change in the way 16 year olds are taught and assessed; well worth remembering in light of Gove’s recent legislation to allow completely unqualified staff to teach in his beloved academies, and to massively reduce the level of training needed for an actual teaching qualification.
And for a finale, they go on to basically rubbish the other major strand of Gove’s cherished reforms – the removal of competition between exam boards for each subject. As I’ve said in the past, I actually think this is a good idea in itself; but Ofqual make the very good point that such a massive fundamental change to qualification provision, on top of the already dramatic upheaval caused by replacing the entire foundations of Key Stage 4 qualifications for the last quarter-century is a recipe for disaster. Much better, they say, if you have to have massive changes, to do them one at a time; better to have one risk of disaster than several. An edifice might survive with one pillar pulled down; but not with all of them gone.
There’s also an implicit criticism of the wasteful unemployment that will likely result, with the loss of countless subject experts from exam boards not (un)lucky enough to win the bid to deliver the new qualifications. And to top it off, they point out that such boards are then hardly going to be in a position to develop the new A Levels Gove so desperately wants, when they’ve lost their subject experts as a result of losing those bids for the EBC.
All told, it’s a damning critique from the very body recently perceived as Gove’s lapdog, and the one whose data he so misleadingly and selectively uses to justify his actions. What’s more, its publication on the very day he so evasively resisted questioning about its contents looks like a deliberate slap in the minister’s mealy-mouthed, Pob-like chops.
Will he return to the committee and discuss Ofqual’s reservations, or will he brush them aside as he’s likely to do with the results of the DfE’s consultation on the matter? This government has already garnered a reputation for rejecting the results of its own consultations and enquiries when they don’t fit with its predetermined dogma – witness how George Osborne’s “deficit reduction” plan so uncannily mirrors longstanding Conservative philosophy in the face of so much testimony that it won’t achieve its aims.
Gove’s hell-for-leather charge to bulldozer through longstanding hard-right policies is symptomatic of the philosophy of this government as a whole – to sell off the nation’s silver in accordance with fanatical libertarian ideals, and to do it as quickly and irreversibly as possible before they’re voted out. His motives are neatly spelled out in this New Statesman article from one of the teachers in the trenches, which emotively (but accurately) refers to him as a “cynical, ideologically-driven man with an agenda of educational genocide”.
Hyperbole aside, Gove’s breathtaking display of sly evasion before a select committee chaired by one of his own party was so brazen it was up there with James Murdoch’s “I can’t recall…” testimony to Leveson. It’s just a shame that, with him being trumped for sheer nastiness by the Chancellor’s benefit cuts, nobody seems to have noticed it, leaving him free to carry on returning schoolchildren to the 50s. The 1850s. Given the direction of Osborne’s policies, we’ll soon see workhouses back in action, so that all fits together quite nicely.