Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Playing politics with young people’s futures

One might hope the biggest reform of assessment in English education in over two decades would be based on a set of clear principles, evidence of what’s effective and consultation with everyone with a stake in the education system – young people, teachers, parents, and employers.

Sadly, the announcement yesterday about replacing GCSEs with a new EBacc showed the extent to which coalition politics is becoming about ill-founded ideology rather than responsible governance.

Of course 14-19 education and assessment is in need of reform – the existing system is a remnant of a time when most young people left school at 16 and there was a two-tier system of grammar and secondary modern education. Reform to date has been a case of building on top of what already existed rather than the more fundamental change now needed.

But the EBacc is riddled with many more problems than what it is replacing. Rather than moving us forwards by assessing the skills that young people need to succeed in the modern world, it’s moving us back to the 1980s where a three-hour written exam of the sort taken in Oxbridge finals was considered the pinnacle of a young person’s academic achievement.

Gove says he wants to end ‘teaching to the test’. Yet it is impossible to prevent coaching for success in any kind of assessment or test, including of course the EBacc. Indeed, given assessments have never before been so high stakes for schools, with underperformers at risk of being forcibly converted into academies, they would be barmy not to do it. So any assessment had better be designed to test the range of skills we want young people to develop. The government seems to think that is being able to sit a three-hour written exam.

For those young people whose skillset means that is never going to be a feasible option, Gove’s alternative is a ‘record of achievement’ produced by schools themselves. It’s hard to think of a system more two-tiered than the old O-level/CSE divide than one in which the alternative has no element of external assessment.

Exams by themselves are also a notoriously unreliable way of assessing an individual pupil’s progress. Experts at the Institute for Education estimated that Key Stage 2 and 3 tests misclassify around 30-40 per cent of pupils – and that to reduce that to 10 per cent, key stage tests would have to be over thirty hours long. So it would be impossible to design a single three-hour paper that is can function as an accurate record of an individual’s achievement for pupils of all ability.

No surprise then that virtually nobody seems to be supporting these reforms – not businesses, teachers nor educational experts. Wheeling out a single head is no substitute for generating the type of consensus responsible governments should always seek to secure for significant reform.

What should Labour’s response be? Stephen Twigg was right to robustly oppose the reforms as he did yesterday. But if the coalition can’t rise above playing politics with our young people’s future, Labour must show it can. It must seek to build a wide-ranging consensus between the teaching profession, educationalists and business for its own 14-19 reforms as part of its policy review. Much work has been done in the past, so there is a rich back catalogue. But any reform should pay heed to some basic principles. First, both our academic and vocational qualifications must be fit for purpose – this must mean reform and consolidation of the current alphabet soup of vocational qualifications into a vocational ‘gold standard’ that can sit beside its A Level equivalent. Second, there should be robust functional qualifications in core skills like maths and writing that young people must do as a minimum before they leave full-time education in 18, regardless of the path they choose. Third, young people should be able to make a meaningful choice about what type of path they follow from an age younger than 16, but it should never be an irreversible one.


Sonia Sodha is head of policy and strategy at Dartington Social Research Unit, Dartington and tweets @soniasodha


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Sonia Sodha

is a former adviser to Ed Miliband and writes for Progress in a personal capacity


  • You said ”
    Stephen Twigg was right to robustly oppose the reforms as he did yesterday”. But that’s not how I read Labour’s response. I think the party is not boxing itself in quite so much.

  • You are right to criticise Gove (and Clegg) for introducing “ill-founded ideology” (strategy would be a more suitable term) – though he won’t be the first Education Secretary to do that. What you failed to address is the underlying philosophy dictating the Coalition’s aims for State Education. Everything that Gove utters is predicated on the beliefs that a) State education is a waste of taxpayers money, b) the State system has failed to educate children to the ‘right’ standards – the blame for which he attaches to Blair and teachers), c) the best education takes place in the Private sector; hence the introduction of ‘free’ schools that will allow those in the Private sector to become ‘free’ and claim State funding (like Toby Young), d) too many pupils are achieving top grades – hence the arbitrary 10% limit on A grades, e) his EBacc will be a modern version of ‘O’ Levels, i.e. academically biased and geared to producing a small top tier of pupils groomed for the University system (which, by the way, will be severely reduced in capacity and range) and a sizeable % of fails (whose failure will obviously be the consequence of poor teaching) who will be forced to take on unregulated unskilled work – if available.
    I will take issue with you on the following points in your article: GCSE’s are not the remnants of the Grammar and Sec Mod system – by 1988 they had been replaced largely by Comprehensives. I question your automatic assumption that “of course 14-19 education and assessment are in need of reform” – changes in education fashion is not a legitimate reason for changing a system (otherwise, we would have abolished universities). Reform needs to be based on knowing what outcomes we want and comparing them with present outcomes. Unfortunately, no party appears to know what they want from education. Is it ‘preparation for life’ or ‘preparation for work’; should we test to ‘exclude’ or ‘include’; should 14-19 pupils be taught ‘expand their abilities’ or ‘train for employment’?
    “Young people should be able to make a meaningful choice about what type of path they follow from an age younger than 16, but it should never be an irreversible one”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What nonsense.
    Finally, I despair when commentators on educational matters constantly refer to “rigour” or “gold standards” or “robust” (as in ‘robust functional qualifications’): they are terms with multiple interpretations and therefore meaningless (but useful for cofusing and misleading people). Talking of ‘robust’, Stephen Twigg was anything but when responding to Gove’s announcements. Twigg was more weak and feeble; unable to muster any convincing rebuttal. He blunders along as if clueless at what to think. He needs to go.

  • I was in the last year of O-Level/CSE and the first year of GCSE, I have a mixture of all three. Back then we were graded on a curve, no matter what the absolute scores were a certain percentage would get an A and a certain percentage would get an F. Roughly 50% of pupils would get a C or above and roughly 50% would get a D or below. It worked to do the job it was supposed to do, that is allow employers and colleges to see who were the top performers that year and who were not. It was based on the eminently sensible paradigm that whilst difficulty of exam questions may vary from year to year the overall ability of school pupils was less likley to. It meant that if an exam was much tougher one year than it had been the previous year the candidates would not be disadvantaged and the resulting reduction in scores would bring down the grade boundaries so a candidate who would have gotten an A the previous year would get an A this year. I think it’s a good thing.

    I do think that going purely to an examination at the end of the course is a bad thing, but I also think that for most courses purely course work/modules would be equally bad (for one thing often you don’t know if it’s the pupil’s work that is being marked of their parent’s). You need at least a sample of work that has definitely been done by the pupil and has been done in a controlled and time pressured environment. A mix of course work, externally assessed, and examinations would, in my view, be ideal. It’s worth bearing in mind that even at Oxbridge colleges a degree is based on not just the finals exams but also, usually, a written dissertation and, sometimes, a viva voce.

    From what I’ve seen of vocational qualifications I do think that some sort of ‘tidy up’ is needed. Maybe a reduction of the number of awarding bodies but more likely some sort of standardisation of curriculum and core subject matter so an employer or further/higher education supplier can be confident that if someone has a qualification at a certain level in a vocational subject that they will have covered certain areas and been assessed to the appropriate level in those areas. I have heard tutors literally say to students that they should take one qualification rather than another as it’s worth the same but easier. Perhaps also have a cross subject set of standards, similar to SFIA and NOS, where each level in each skill/aptitude has with it a specification of what qualifications or other evidence would be needed to justify it. This would be particularly useful for employers and job seekers who are trying to change areas of work as it would highlight transferable skills.

    Regarding ‘expand abilities’ vs ‘train for work’ I think that if we’re honest we have to look to the latter. As lovely as it would be if we could see education as a goal in it’s own right I think we have to admit that it is to prepare people for work and life, giving them the skills they need to gain employment and be productive for themselves and the economy. Primary and secondary education should be about giving people basic skills, helpiong them find where their interests and aptitudes lie then helping them to exploit those interests and aptitudes through later secondary and tertiary education to gain the skills and knowledge they need to be productive. I’m certainly not advocating an 11+ style divide betwen academic (i.e. Grammar school) and vocational (i.e. trade school) education, in my ideal everyone would take a mixture of academic and vocational subjects according to their interests and aptitudes.

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