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Chris McGovern: The exam system is broken


Michael Gove sees a “Berlin Wall” between our state schools and our private schools. He might have gone further and described this gulf as an “ocean”; more precisely, a Pacific Ocean.

After all, the most recent international league tables of educational attainment, the so-called PISA tests, show that the bottom 10% of pupils in Asia Pacific Shanghai are ahead of the top 20% of pupils in the UK.

However, and remarkably, many richer parents in Shanghai and in other educational top performers in Asia Pacific are queuing up to send their offspring to British schools, especially for the sixth from (Years 12 & 13), but only to our private schools, of course.

True, these parents may be wanting their children to escape the pressure cooker of Asian education but they have the whole world from which to choose a school. They choose our private schools because they are widely recognised as the best in the world.

Sadly, most of our state schools are miles behind those in Asia, up to six years behind in the case of our weaker 15 year-olds girls in mathematics. So it is small wonder that the Government is so concerned. The gulf is not only a criminal waste of talent, it is hugely unfair on pupils in most of our state schools.

Mr. Gove has recognised the problem. This is a first step in addressing the issue. At last, a sense of reality is creeping into education. But where do we go from here? Solving a problem is rather more difficult than identifying it.

The Education Secretary has staked a lot on the academies programme. However, if Gove’s strategy for bridging the gap between state schools and private schools is to have any hope of success he will need to do more than change the structure of state schools.

Nowadays, we do have diversity in terms of maintained schools – local authority comprehensives, grammars and ‘secondary mods’, alongside academies and free schools. The problem remains that, more or less, they are all have to offer the same end product – a GCSE exam that fails to stretch able children and is unsuited to the least academic.

The real challenge ahead is to reform the public examination system, especially the GCSE exam. Some youngsters need and deserve a more vocational pathway. We should stop treating practical and work-orientated learning as the Cinderella component of education.

For academically able children the best private schools tend to teach well beyond the GCSE syllabus; not so with most state schools.

Only if academic examinations are made more rigorous and set alongside equally rigorous vocational examinations will we see teachers raising the bar in terms of what they teach.

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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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