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Gove GCSE reforms mean pupils will no longer be working to make politicians look good

    Tom Burkard is an education expert, CPS author, Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby and co-founder of the Phoenix Free School

    For years, educators have been attacking our GCSEs, and many of their criticisms were spot on. Beyond a doubt, the target-setting mania that flourished when Sir Michael Barber was head of Blair's delivery unit had a lot to answer for. The benchmark of 5 'good' GCSE grades meant that pupils just below the benchmark were crammed in hothouses, memorising disjointed phrases that were quickly forgotten. The rest were left to their own devices on 'study leave'. As Toby Young says, it was all in aid of making politicians look good.

    Bear this in mind the next time a teaching union official bleats on about the abolition of coursework from all exams except science, bemoaning the fate of pupils whose talents don't shine under exam conditions. Never mind the obvious rejoinder - would you want to be operated on by a surgeon who couldn't perform under theatre conditions and had to demonstrate his or her talent by presenting a portfolio? Exams are pointless if all get prizes - that is, unless you are a politician who is trying to pretend that your education reforms are 'working'.

    Once again, union officials are showing how divorced they are from what is happening in schools. In our less favoured schools, teachers work long hours assisting pupils with their coursework, doing almost everything for them. In our more favoured schools, parents can be relied upon to do the heavy lifting - today's Matt cartoon in the Telegraph had it spot on. One pupil says to another, "Coursework was boring and time consuming, but at least it kept our parents occupied".

    Yet the real scandal was the nature of the exams themselves. In order to be 'accessible' to all, New Labour encouraged exam boards to dumb down exams to the point where any sentient being could pass them. Last year, the Telegraph exposed the cynical tactics they used: one official admitted that pupils "could get by with anything, really". Although the exams purportedly tested 'higher order thinking skills', in fact pupils just learned to parrot phrases which mimicked these skills. We ended up with the worst possible exams: rote learning of material that was utterly meaningless. At least in the old days there was some point to learning poetry by heart, or the important dates in history.

    Under New Labour, academic subjects were surreptitiously stripped of content in favour of nebulous 'skills', such as 'learning to learn'. As one teacher commented, "The drift away from content has become so pronounced in recent years that many young and 'successful' teachers find it laughable that we might want to reinstate knowledge and understanding as the central tenet of education."

    Gove's reforms will greatly simplify our task at the Phoenix Free School, where one of our central aims is to forge a common British identity that we can all embrace. Until recently, whatever references there were to our past were a grotesque inversion of the Whig version of history: everything we did was uniquely evil - the soiled product of dead white European males. The new exams have restored British history to pride of place - about 40% of the content will be British. So now we can teach our children that liberty and law enabled us to lead the world in the scientific, commercial and industrial revolutions that have freed the bulk of mankind from poverty and hunger.

    You can see why Gove's opponents are frothing at the mouth.


    Read the recent BBC News report on Tom Burkard's work with the CPS and Phoenix Free School here

    Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure. In June 2015 he was awarded a DPhil by Published Works by the University of Buckingham.

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