Professor Martin FautleyBy Professor Martin Fautley, Director of Birmingham City University’s Centre for Research in Education

The potential shake up of the A-level system, as reported in The Times, has caused some waves in the education sector recently as leaders and policy makers begin to make sense of the coalition’s latest proposal.

The reports suggest that the current A-level system may be overhauled in favour of an emphasis on a new qualification: the Advanced Baccalaureate.  The Advanced Baccalaureate or ‘ABacc’ would allow students to integrate a number of different A-Level subjects into their studies, with the intention of providing students with greater variety during their studies.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has already made a number of calls for increased collaboration between colleges and universities in his search to create a more “academically rigorous” system and put an end to what he perceives to be a culture of “spoon feeding” in UK education. The introduction of the ABacc looks to be the next step in his vision for UK education.

Taking a step back, I think there are a number of key things to draw from this:

Firstly, it is important to remember that a one size fits all approach to further education is unlikely to be beneficial to either students or the wider skills economy in the long term.

The government needs to acknowledge that there is a considerable variation between different subjects in UK colleges, and that there is also a wide variety in the student body. Putting an emphasis on students with an inclination towards academic subjects means that there is a risk of sidelining a large number of students who could benefit from a more vocational approach.

We know from the mounting pressure concerning the EBacc that Gove does not see the value of the Arts. Indeed, one view could be that Gove’s view of education is to reproduce Gove-clones! This narrow approach has the potential to alienate huge numbers of our young people. We need plumbers, painters, car mechanics, and investment bankers. Gove’s ideas take the curriculum into a new century. Sadly that is the nineteenth, not the twenty-first. We at BCU pride ourselves on our near-field research and practice-led teaching. This is not Gove-ian!

Secondly, the “spoon feeding” approach which Mr. Gove refers to is perhaps not as detrimental as he suggests. Providing young people with a variety of teaching methods is an important part of what sixth form and further education can offer. Different students have different requirements when it comes to teaching, so catering to these needs is not something which should be viewed as a weakness. However, we must also ask why this happens.

For me, the problem is assessment. I am currently researching the effects of Goodhart’s and Campbell’s laws on education. Goodhart’s law (Courakis, 1981; Goodhart, 1975) states that when a measure designed for one purpose becomes instead an article of policy, it ceases to have value as a measure. Closely related to this is Campell’s law (Campbell, 1976), which when applied to the consequences of educational assessment, can be taken to mean that when assessment grades become the goals of the teaching and learning process, they cease to be useful as indicators of that which they were supposed to measure. Is it any wonder that when schools and colleges are measured only on assessment results they do anything they can to boost these?

The Technical Baccalaureate or ‘TBacc’, proposed by Michael Gove’s opposition counterpart Stephen Twigg, offers an interesting alternative to the academic emphasis. But we must ask ourselves, what is the problem, to which these answers are the solution? The Dearing report of 1997 made recommendations for A-level reform, which were largely ignored. Political interference in the curriculum has to produce short-term gains very quickly. This also means ignoring, or negating the works of previous governments. We seem to be in a situation of non-stop change, of policy by management consultants aged in their mid-twenties, with no knowledge, or interest in the history of education. The place for long-term reflection has gone. The management consultants grow up and move on, ministers go to different departments, only the teaching professionals remain in post!

Campbell, D. (1976) ‘Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change’. In Lyons, G. (Ed), Social Research and Public Policies: The Dartmouth/ OECD Conference, Hanover, NH, Public Affairs Center, Dartmouth College.

Courakis, A. S. (1981) Inflation, depression and economic policy in the West, London, Mansell.

Goodhart, C. A. E. (1975) Monetary Relationships: A View from Threadneedle Street. Papers in Monetary Economics: Reserve Bank of Australia, 1.

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Martin Fautley

Martin Fautley

Director of the Centre for Research Education at Birmingham City University
Martin Fautley

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