Thursday, October 1, 2020
Home News Mark Ellse: Gormless Gove flunks logic test. You can’t make exams harder...

Mark Ellse: Gormless Gove flunks logic test. You can’t make exams harder and expect more kids to pass

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Now listen, boys and girls, I’m just going to explain to you exactly why the maths I am going to teach you today is impossible and why just about no-one in the class is going to have a clue what I’m going to be talking about. You may think that it’s bonkers that I have to teach you something that you can’t follow. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, just about every teacher in the land who is actually teaching maths thinks it is bonkers as well. But teachers have no choice in the matter. A gentleman called Mr Gove had a bright idea that he could magically raise standards and, since it requires a little bit of mathematical thinking and will be good practice for you, I am going to start this lesson by explaining why Mr Gove, himself, got his maths wrong.

About fifty years ago, when your grandparents were at school, only about about a fifth of people did exams before they left school. What’s that, Bloggs minor? Yes, you are right. One fifth is 20 per cent. Yes, Blogs, only 20 per cent of pupils took exams. Well done!

Now the exams that these children took were called O-levels and, since these were very hard exams, even though only the top 20 per cent of children took these exams, only 80 per cent of those bright children passed these exams. Come on Blogs, what’s 80 per cent of 20 per cent? Yes, indeed, it’s 16 per cent. The O level examinations were so hard that only the top 16 per cent of children could pass them.

Now, I’ll tell you something else about the old days. People had different ideas then. In those days, it was acceptable to say that some children were not as bright as others. Yes, Angel, you are quite right that it does sound unkind to say that but it really does seem to be true. Some children really do find maths harder than others. Yes, Smirthwaite, I know that maths isn’t your strong subject. Yes it probably is because you aren’t very bright. But we can’t really say that, can we?

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes. Well, about thirty or forty years ago, things got into a bit of a mess. More and more jobs needed people to do paperwork and some children at school started sitting exams called CSEs (Certificate of Secondary Education). These were a lot easier than O levels because they were designed for the children who were not good enough for O levels. Exactly, Angel, children just like you, not nearly so good at maths as Bloggs but entirely good enough to count out the change in a shop.

Anyway, if I may continue, some children were taking O-levels, some were taking CSEs and, frankly, school exams were a mess. Children didn’t know whether to take O-levels or CSEs. Employers didn’t know how good children were because there was no direct comparison between the two sets of exams. Eventually, along came a man called Kenneth Baker and he produced an exam system called GCSE, which combined the O-levels and CSEs together. Yes, Bloggs, they were easier than O-levels. They were designed so that half the school children would get a grade C, which was called a pass. Yes, Angel, half is 50 per cent. Well done! And yes, you are quite right that the new GCSE had to be easier than O-levels because it was designed for the whole ability range and not just for the top 20 per cent.

I’m sorry, Smirthwaite, there has not yet been designed a maths exam that is easy enough for you to pass.

Now, children, this is what this has to do with today’s maths lesson. That man that I mentioned, Mr Gove, was keen on what he called standards. Some people told him that GCSEs are not as hard as O-levels used to be. And, of course, it’s true. GCSEs are not as hard as O-levels. I’ve already told you why. But Mr Gove didn’t understand that. Truth to tell, like most politicians, Mr Gove wasn’t very good at maths. He knew the difference between its and it’s, between practise and practice, and he could spot a split infinitive at twenty paces. But he wasn’t very good at maths at all. But Mr Gove was determined to raise standards. So he set up loads of committees and told them to make maths GCSE harder.

Yes, Angel, you are quite right. If the GCSEs become harder, it is indeed likely that you won’t pass. But Mr Gove didn’t like that idea. You see, like many Conservative politicians he thinks of himself as a One-Nation Tory. Conservatives like calling themselves that because it sounds grand and is nearly the same as saying that everyone is the same. And because Conservative politicians talk in a muddled way, they start thinking in a muddled way. Mr Gove actually believes that you can make exams harder and still have the same number of children pass them! What a silly idea! But Mr Gove believes it! You’ll find it hard to believe it but Mr Gove really believes that, if only teachers did their job properly, even you, Smirthwaite, would pass O-level maths. Yes, Smirthwaite, you are quite right. He would indeed have to be as daft as you to think that.

And so, children, before you have really understood the basic maths that I really should be teaching you, today we are going to be studying completion of the square, the differentiation of the resulting equations and the implications this has for finding the turning point on the corresponding graphs. Sorry, Bloggs. You’re not going to understand it either, but this is what Mr Gove calls ‘raising standards’.

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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