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Surfing Against The Tide

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has just announced that A-Levels are to be overhauled with all modules scrapped and all assessment to be conducted at the end of a two-year course. This follows hot-on-the-heels of similarly sweeping announcements made for GCSEs late last year with changes to both qualifications to phase into effect in September 2015.

Both sets of these profound rebuilds, but particularly those proposed for A-Levels, have been met with a throng of critical voices from both schools and universities with the greatest bone of contention being that there is little, if any, empirical evidence whatsoever to support the basis for these arguably retrograde measures. An ideologically-driven belief that there is an apparent “lack of deep understanding “ and that “learning facts by rote” is the key to success have spearheaded this march to the past that will, for better or worse, wind the clock back in the British educational establishment by a good twenty years or more.

To give Mr Gove the benefit of the doubt: I’m not completely convinced by the arguments either for or against these changes as the uncomfortable truth for both camps is that both approaches hold a fair degree of water. Right up until the 90s, we were educating students under the style that Gove is advocating and there’s little to suggest that the brightest lights of that era were anything less than highly capable. Then again, those educated under the more moderate, inclusive and arguably forward-thinking system that we have enjoyed since do not appear to be any less capable themselves. Perhaps, then, this is merely change for change’s sake and the net result will prove to be negligible in the eternally optimistic and resourceful face of human nature?

If not the arguments about the possible effect of these changes, what does interest me greatly is the silent yet strong subtext of and context within which this radical decision-making is being made.

There is a tangible distaste of any form of modern approach in Gove’s rhetoric and a passionate harking back to the ‘golden days’ of rulers, textbooks, the classics, mental arithmetic, geometry and the drilled regurgitation of facts. Which is fine: I don’t mean to knock that skillset in any way, shape of form, but the simple fact of the matter is that the average person in today’s society walks around with a portal to the entire knowledgebase of mankind in their pocket: the smartphone. And failing access to one, we have tablets, laptops and desktops that are all capable of both viewing and indeed contributing towards this exponentially growing mass of readily accessible knowledge at home and, perhaps more importantly, at work. Fast-forwards a generation and the simple fact of the matter is that we’ll be wearing web-enabled, augmented reality devices.

Children Playing

Successful and productive individuals, organisations and societies have come to learn to recognise that true strength lay in collaboration, synthesis, contribution and adaptation; not in atomisation, oppression or isolation. Technology is simply the bridge by which we can best reach this goal.

If you don’t believe me, look at the job description of any post from the humble shelf-stacker through to the apparently lofty chief executive: the keywords that you will see again and again refer to soft and interpersonal skills far more than they do knowledge-based ones. Why? Because we live in a world where knowledge is readily available and where the cultural norm has become, more than ever before, the sharing of said knowledge and the involvement and nurturing of others in that process. Out there in the ‘real’ world, something that Gove appears to be so keen to better prepare young people for, the very last thing that we do is purposefully and habitually exclude individuals from support and guidance or push them into the cold confines of an isolated environment such as the examination hall.

To be precise, then: these changes aren’t an attack on modular examinations; they’re not an attack on lack or rigour or lack of perceived ability; they’re not an attack on Labour or Liberal principles; they’re not even a solution to an educational problem as there’s simply no evidence to suggest that one even exists; they’re an attack on every major technological advance made in the last fifty years that has given birth to the internet and put it into the palm of our hands.

It’s an attack that, for a country that prides itself on its technological prowess and forward-thinking approach to creative problem-solving, quite simply beggars belief. It’s also in stark contrast to the measures being quietly introduced in schools and universities in Denmark, where many students are now actively encouraged to access the internet in examinations.

Victorian Classroom

Lise Petersen, e-learning project coordinator at the University of Southern Denmark:

“What you want to test is problem-solving and analytical skills and students’ ability to reflect and discuss one particular topic”.

Ms Petersen goes on to assert that, far from being a soft option, using the internet as an academic tool is a challenge for most students due to the sheer volume of information available.

“The skill is discerning between relevant and irrelevant information and then putting it in context,”

Doesn’t this sound more like the world that we live in? Doesn’t enhancing the skillset required to successfully operate in this fast-moving environment sound like a much wiser investment in our future than encouraging the age-old art of reciting poetry?

In an ideal world, you would argue that both skillsets are desirable and that a balanced approach would be wisest and it’s perhaps the case that Danish are being a little too radical in their outlook. Either way: there’s no denying that Gove is marching in entirely the wrong direction.

As any gamer will tell you: one simply does not fire one’s RPG when immediately facing an immovable object.

Bravo, Mr Gove; bravo.

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  1. Typical Tory government harking back to bygone eras rather than understanding what is needed for the future, or even now.

  2. I’ve watched him on question time a few times, and he is one of those people who, despite being highly intelligent, just doesn’t ‘get’ it

  3. The more I think about this the more it irks me! Education should be taken our of the politicians’ hands and dealt with by a cross-party group supported by experts. This constant shifting from left to right principles fuelled by personal whims is surely having the net effect of us going nowhere, fast?

  4. The more I think about this the more it irks me! Education should be taken out of the politicians’ hands and dealt with by a cross-party group supported by educationalists with real-world experience. This constant shifting from left to right principles fuelled by personal whims is surely having the net effect of us going nowhere, fast?

What do you think? Leave a comment!