Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Education reform will be a real test for our politicians

After years of debate about the dumbing down of exams, the much criticised GCSE is now being phased out in England to be replaced by a new tougher test proposed by Education Minister, Michael Gove. (His name rhymes with stove.)

Officially titled the English Baccalaureate (or EBacc) the exam has inevitably been dubbed the Gove-level.

It will, according to its creator, "restore rigour" in the exam process - which sadly, boys and girls, does not sound like a walk in the park to me.

So do we get this muscular new Gove-level here?

Or an O'Dowd level?

Assembly Education Minister John O'Dowd has let it be known that he is not at all impressed by Mr Gove's announcement of the examination revamp which, he claims, may have "fatally flawed" the GCSE brand.

Mr O'Dowd complains that Mr Gove should have consulted the devolution administrations before steaming ahead. (Fair point. As Dave might say, we are all in this - educationally - together.)

The Education Secretary has yet to prove that the GCSE was not rigorous, Mr O'Dowd asserts, adding that he does not want students here to think they are sitting a lesser exam.

He could also have added he does not want universities in England or elsewhere thinking students here are sitting a lesser exam and thus earning a lesser qualification.

Whatever system we end up with, he promises, there will be consultation first.

We do not want a "rushed decision" apparently. As if Stormont has ever delivered one of those ...

So a new NIBacc for NI?

Mr Gove's examination will do away with assessment, modules and (that bane of every parent's life) coursework.

It will consist of one toughie test at the end of the year. Which sounds not unlike the old skool system which was abandoned in the 80s. (EBacc to the future?)

Since it's been argued that boys don't perform quite so well in coursework as girls, the new exam might even up the score on that account.

Critics, however, maintain it will not suit children of all abilities. Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg, who prefers the GCSE level playing field, says the EBacc will only work for some pupils and it does not reflect the needs of modern society.

Mr Gove counters that it is exactly what universities and employers and modern society have been crying out for.

Mr Twigg says ditching coursework is out of date. Mr Gove says coursework itself is out of date.

They are as divided on the subject, children, as Europe before the First World War.

So that big question then - where does all this leave us here where divided views on our education system are even more entrenched?

"Whatever exam system we end up with, whatever the title of it is, it will be robust and rigorous," Mr O'Dowd assures us.

Students from Northern Ireland currently, consistently, outperform their counterparts throughout the UK. But with a new fragmented exam system at GCSE (and potentially, A level) are they going to be left behind in the race for university places across the water?

Stormont, not known for its speed in coming up with solutions, needs to get cracking now.

Our Assembly is once again being put to the educational test.

Given the ongoing Horlicks over the 11-plus, how much confidence can we have that they won't make a hash of this one too?

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