“At last, dumbed down exams are axed” trumpets the Mail On Sunday today, as hack Simon Walters demonstrates yet again his total lack of understanding of the subject on which he has been instructed to pontificate. This is held to be a “key moment” in the career of Education Secretary Michael “Oiky” Gove. But in reality it is a key moment only in Gove’s success in getting his spin into the papers.
The article – backed up by an equally sycophantic Op-Ed by James Forsyth (“How determined Gove finally passed his big exam test”) – is clearly written merely to tick off a predetermined list of bullet points without undue regard for facts. And it starts as it means to go on: “Mr Gove won his battle to ensure ... that the top grades only go to the brightest children”. No shit, Sherlock. So just like now, then.
“The reforms are designed to help schools in England catch up with other countries which have left us trailing in school standards”. Whoops, there goes another fallacy: the over-reliance on raw results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a Mail trademark. But, as the number of countries participating has grown so much over the years, direct comparison is effectively meaningless.
How so? Well, if you’re fourth out of 20, and later on sixteenth out of 80, all other things being equal, it might look as if there has been a precipitous decline. But the two are equal. Moreover, the different times of the year at which the tests were performed, and the mix of abilities of the participants, has also not been considered. And there are other tests that suggest improvement, rather than decline.
The Boston College Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), longer established than PISA, showed that between 1995 and 2007 (for instance) primary school maths performance went from below the international average to well above it, and from twelfth out of 16 countries to seventh out of 36. Secondary school maths went from eleventh out of 20 to seventh out of 49.
Yet we are constantly being told that we are “standing still” while other countries are “racing past”. Gove asks “How can [England] hope to be the home of the Microsofts, Googles and Facebooks of the future?”, yet the USA, home to all three of those organisations, came lower in the much cited PISA rankings than us. The thought enters that very little of the spin is being thought through.
And that’s in addition to all the misunderstanding of the marking philosophy behind the old “O” Level – normative and therefore totally different to the criteria-based approach of GCSEs – as well as the customary kicking of teachers and their Trades Unions, all of which when stirred into the mix only goes to reinforce the thought that this is Government propaganda that happens to also meet the Mail’s agenda.
But spin does not improve the nation’s education, and that’s not good enough.