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Kenneth Baker damns GCSEs. So what took him so long?


SOME of the country’s leading educators have declared war on the GCSE examination.

The alliance, called Rethinking Assessment, have written an open letter to the Sunday Times. They have had enough, it seems, of ‘our mutant exam system’. This summer’s results fiasco, they assert, ‘has been brewing for years’.

How right they are, finally – these great and good of our educational establishment! They include the likes of Tony Blair’s former speechwriter, Peter Hyman, teacher union boss Geoff Barton and a host of eminent academics and head teachers.

At the top of the tree-of-indignation signatories who have been re-thinking is Baron (Kenneth) Baker of Dorking.  As secretary of state for education he oversaw the introduction of the GCSE in 1988. He was also responsible for the disastrous Education Reform Act of the same year. It imposed on schools the first and most dumbed-down version of a national curriculum. Our education system has spiralled along a downward pathway ever since. The fact of the exam reforms preceding curriculum reform is testimony to the educational mismanagement of those years.

As Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher was not unaware of the problems.  She certainly made her exasperation clear to me during an informal discussion we had during John MacGregor’s period as education secretary. MacGregor had succeeded Baker in 1989 and had to oversee the implementation of his predecessor’s disastrous reforms.

I have on a previous occasion explained how the educational rot set in under Lord Baker.

In terms of taking any action, events – not least the miners’ strike – conspired against Mrs Thatcher. In his biography of the former prime minister, Charles Moore makes clear her differences with Baker:

‘She worried that Baker was too centralist, even socialist . . .’

He adds: ‘Mrs Thatcher’s disagreements with Baker, particularly those over the national curriculum, revealed a potential contradiction at the heart of her educational reforms.’

Now, in 2020, Lord Baker, comfortably cushioned by some high and mighty educational names, has stepped forward as a co-signatory of this brass-necked statement of the bleedin’ obvious about the GCSE.

The open letter to the Sunday Times begins:

‘We were told this summer that it was a “mutant algorithm” that had caused the anguish of the exam fiasco. Covid may have exposed the failings, but in truth, something more profound is going on, and it has been brewing for years: we have a mutant exam system.

‘Created with good intentions – to “raise standards” – it has mutated into something that neither measures the right things nor is very reliable, and leaves in its wake a trail of stress and unfairness.

‘Many of those who are involved in the exams merry-go-round are reaching the same conclusion – it’s not fit for purpose and needs to change.

‘This week a new group – Rethinking Assessment – is being launched to do something about it.’

Better late than never, but it is a damned impudence to have waited until, in the wake of this summer’s examination debacle, the going got easy for admitting the truth.

Criticism of GCSE was not so risk-free in 1988 when Lord Baker introduced the exam. Teachers from Lewes Priory school in East Sussex, for example, were accused by their governing body of ‘insubordination and mutiny’ for questioning the quality of what was, then, the new 16+ exam. The accusation was supported by the local authority. Teachers concerned lost their jobs – ostensibly due to ‘redeployment’.

A debate in one of Baker’s current abodes of employment, the House of Lords, exposed the consequences of what used to be dished out to critics of the exam.

A conflict over GCSE has been evident, not least in the media, since the introduction of the exam over three decades ago. The war went nuclear this summer and, whatever the government may argue, the examination edifice has collapsed.

Now that the path has been trodden (rather like the Soviet Union entering war against Japan in August 1945, after Hiroshima), the Rethink Assessment group has declared itself as anti-GCSE. It argues that the time has now come for change. Its admission, however, that the problem of a ‘mutant exam system’ has ‘been brewing for years’ gives the game away. Shame on its members for keeping silent for so long. Greater shame, though, on those who remain silent.

The GCSE is dead. A new model of 14-18 education is required. There should be both vocational and academic pathways. To his credit, if not to his redemption, even Lord Baker has now recognised this need.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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