Last week was the best for Conservatives in education since the election, with major policy announcements on Monday and Thursday, and the opposition left without much to say.
The first, on examinations, continues the restoration of intellect to a central place in education through the Ebacc. The original idea checked the freefall in foreign languages, but was forced to include two science subjects (rather than, say, one science and IT) because single science GCSE had been dumbed down so far that no-one saw it as a qualification at all.
The new Ebacc is compact, leaving scope for schools to offer a good range of additional subjects, and opens the curriculum to further good ideas from the international baccalaureate, to which some successful schools have turned in their disaffection from A level. Foundations for the reform of secondary science are being laid in the new primary curriculum, which is based on the disciplines of separate sciences.
The replacement of coursework by a final examination is long overdue. Part of the problem is corruption – the opportunity to resubmit coursework time and again, after intervention from teachers and well-educated parents and friends, means that many candidates are not being judged on their own work, and puts those who do have to rely on their own efforts at a disadvantage.
There are very few people who put their principles above their instinct to help their children – in the late eighties, I watched a high-minded senior education officer write an extended essay for his daughter who was taking a degree in his own subject, handing each completed page to his secretary for typing. The internet has made matters worse, and I have seen preloaded powerpoint presentations given to candidates, with the instruction to click on each link and download what they found at the other end, without adding any words of their own as this would be risky. (I reported the practice to the Board concerned).
The argument that coursework is an antidote to stress does not take account of the negative effect of low grades. Suppose I want an A and my early coursework grades are C. I don't just have to improve my later work, but deal with the burden of these early grades, wasting time retaking them that should have been spent in improving my knowledge and thinking. This system has turned two years that should be used for teaching and learning into one continuous test, with a major net increase in stress.
The effect is worse still for those who receive continuous grades of E, F or below. The incessant flow of low grades grinds these pupils down, telling them all the time that they are below standard and useless. They will be much better served by an examination with a gentle early slope that they know will allow them to show what they can do, and a steeper rise later to enable those who should get an A genuinely to achieve it.
The hyperinflation of A grades has misled people into thinking they will find A level straightforward, when in fact they are being set up for struggle and disappointment. The lowest grade of pass should be E, or perhaps O, and there should be clear demarcation between grades A to C. The examiners who told pupils that grade F was a pass were not living in the real world. Ofsted should also go back to a points system for grading passes, to remove the perverse incentive for schools to aim at C grades.
Ofsted's good day, and the second major building block of the week, came on Thursday, with Sir Michael Wilshaw's reports on school improvement, and the critical report on the use of the pupil premium in most schools, which he presented very well on Radio 4. The description of successful approaches to improving schools begins with strong leadership from the headteacher, backed by clear assessment to ensure that pupils are given the right work, and devolved management and self-help to improve teaching. The criticism of the “curse” of mixed-ability grouping without mixed ability teaching is also clear and hard to dispute. It would be no bad thing to investigate the effects of ability grouping in inspections.
The unresolved problem lies in Labour's legacy of authoritarian school management, illustrated by heads' use of the pupil premium for their own purposes rather than to help those for whom it is intended, for example by funding extra classes after school hours or providing food so that they can do their homework in school. One of Sir Michael's most distinguished predecessors, Senior Chief Inspector Sheila Browne, said that "English schools are communities", operating on shared values and co-operation. This is not compatible with the idea that headteachers can do whatever they like.