Professor Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
I was beginning to feel quite warm towards Michael Gove’s plans for more varied qualifications within schools, and then I thought more about the detail. It seems that the proposals to bring back the O-level involve potentially highly damaging government intervention in the education system – and that is a bad starting point for any reform.
Over the last couple of decades we have seen the gradual nationalisation of curricula and examining boards. Under the influence of the governments of the 1990s, boards producing most of the exams ceased to be run directly by universities with a strong interest in the quality of qualifications and, in some cases, became run by commercial organisations. There is nothing wrong with this in principle. However, at the same time, the Government introduced league tables based on high-level summary measures of performance in the new government-imposed examinations.
There is almost an exact analogy here with what went wrong with the credit rating agencies and their rating of bonds before the financial crisis. Bond ratings were used to determine banks’ regulatory capital and the agencies had an incentive to focus not on the quality of the rating process but on ensuring that there was a high rating – their incentives were distorted with serious consequences. In education, the quality of qualifications has become secondary to ensuring that enough passes are achieved at the right level to get a school up the league tables: and the boards respond.
Personally, I think other factors are at work in the improvement in exam results as well – such as children and teachers becoming better at preparing for exams in an era where transparency demands more predictability in exam questions – but league table races are surely important in creating the “competitive race to the bottom” that Mr Gove has described. That race to the bottom, of course, has been encouraged by the Minister’s own continued and renewed focus on the very-high-level summary measure of achievement, the so-called English Baccalaureate.
This is a genuine dilemma, and I do not envy the Minister. The government does not seem ready to fully free the education sector and parents. Meanwhile, how do you hold state schools to account whilst not destroying the meaning of the measure that you are encouraging schools to target and by which you measure their performance?
Surely, the Secretary of State should be building on his moves to give schools more freedom and not moving in the opposite direction. In 2010, Michael Gove gave schools the freedom to teach for the IGCSE (the old O-level). This was very welcome. These are still high-quality qualifications set by independent boards open to competition. There is a competitive race to the top and Michael Gove would do well to analyse why. It is because the process is not distorted by government interference: as the name suggests – the “I” stands for international – these qualifications tend to be used by schools overseas. On the other hand, there is no incentive whatsoever for an English school to use the IGCSE because it would simply go tumbling down the league tables on the government’s standardised comparisons. As such, it seems that the Government wishes to impose something that schools are already allowed to do but which they are reluctant to do because of other Government policies!
However, the Gove proposals are worse than this. It would appear that – ignoring all the lessons from the success of the O-level and IGCSE – the government wishes to impose one board on the whole system. This must involve the government determining through the back door the detailed syllabus that every child in the country will have to study. Will we have, for example, state-determined religious education syllabi? This is far worse than the national curriculum. Not only is this bad news for education, does Mr Gove realise the power he wants to hand to any Labour Party successors in his position to control the detail of what every child in the country learns? Of course, the Minister will argue that he will not control the syllabus – the board will. But, who will select the board?
Surely, what we need is more freedom for parents to choose between schools that are themselves more free. The Government should remove the incentives to dumb down and stop treating parents as if they themselves are dumb. We do not need a single numerical measure of the performance of each school (convenient though that is). Such measures easily become discredited as chasing the target becomes the main focus of so many schools. Instead, schools should produce a range of information which allows parents to judge the quality of qualifications available in the school as well as the results achieved. They should publish what qualifications children do and the results achieved. With this raw data, various league tables could be compiled (as happens with universities). If this is done, schools can determine what qualifications they use and Mr Gove can rid himself of an unnecessary burden.