Continuing his crusade, the ‘radical’ Michael Gove has proposed that the dons of the elite Russell Group should have considerable influence in the writing of A-level examinations. Gove, alongside the rest of his party faithful, argues the necessity of such measures in developing a prestigious education system for the future. Yet it is increasingly clear how this reform also serves the education secretary’s ideological agenda – built upon a combination of nostalgia and traditionalism. Indeed, rather than constructing a more open and diverse system of further and higher education, Gove has opted to reinforce outdated ideas and methods in an effort to bring about his idyllic visions.
Several problems are evident in Gove’s plan for A-Level reform. Firstly, prior to the 2010 general election, Gove spoke a great deal about the failures within Labour’s education policy. Indeed, one element he criticised was the obsessive tendency to use examinations as a means of indicating intelligence. Various think tanks have pointed out that if true reform were desired, A-levels would have to be designed to accommodate a range of abilities and intelligence types – which Gove also acknowledged.
Yet, this reform seems to contradict such sentiments. Indeed, rather than providing a system catering for all abilities, the minister for education has opted for a continuation of a structure focused primarily on academic performance, ostracising the students that struggle with exam conditions. It serves to illustrate Gove’s out-of-touch faith in his traditionalist ideals, in which students are valued purely on the basis of their academic performance, established through rigorous testing.
The reform also contradicts Gove’s rhetoric towards teacher empowerment. While it may remove a large amount of power from commercialised exam boards, authority is instead placed in the hands of new elites within the Russell Group, far more likely to impose their own ideas of further and higher education. The inevitable result is an increased burden on teachers, now expected to realise Gove’s grand project, dreamt up within the ivory towers. Further, the reform does little to empower teachers; instead, it renders them simply as enablers of projects formed by elite academics, often with little experience of teaching in secondary schools.
The reforms also present a more long term problem. In the midst of weak economic recovery, and an unforgiving job market, A-levels should be valuable qualifications that teach a variety of long-term skills. Yet Gove’s vision does not see this as a necessity. Instead, the proposed reform simply regards A-Levels as solely academic, providing students with the necessary foundations to continue studying at university, though not necessarily elsewhere. True reform of A-Levels would have been better approached through system that acknowledged the individual abilities of students, utilising influential people such as entrepreneurs, artists and technology experts to construct qualifications fit for the modern world. Instead, Gove’s blind faith in the academia will create A-Level exams heavily skewed towards those much like himself. Students with academic ability, particularly in the upper-middle class, who intend to go to university. Indeed, it does little to benefit those students in poorer communities, who are less likely to want to enter higher education, or who wish to pursue vocations.
In 1993, the Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, instituted his ‘back to basics’ strategy designed to reverse the ‘moral decline’ of British society through ‘traditional’ British values. Its failure showed a fundamental shift in the needs of a new society, desiring a future of progress. Michael Gove’s educational reform plan eerily echoes Major’s idealistic vision. Gove must acknowledge that while the Russell Group is a valuable component in reforming post 16 education, an A-Level system fit to purpose must also reflect the creative diversity of British society, the independent abilities of its students, and ultimately look toward the future, rather than be seduced by nostalgia.