Did you know that Eton, Harrow and Westminster are now among the worst performing schools in Britain, with academic results so dismal they have been beaten in the league tables by some of our most dismal sink comprehensives?
Well you would were you to place any faith whatsoever in the Department of Education’s latest schools performance tables where, as the Telegraph notes, Eton comes in at 3,818 – 400 places behind Waterhead Academy, Oldham which was placed in special measures last month after its teaching and leadership were judged “inadequate.”
Eton and Westminster, as even our international readers will be aware, are not too shabby academically. So what’s going on here?
In this article, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan – the hapless placewoman drafted in by David Cameron to appease all the would-be Conservative voters who found her predecessor Michael Gove too scarily effective – attempts to explain.
We introduced important reforms to the curriculum, GCSEs and A-levels, pegging them to the best in the world. By introducing new, higher-quality GCSEs, we have ensured that the qualifications used in league tables are, and remain, rigorous. As part of this crucial process, we stripped out all unregulated International GCSEs, or IGCSEs, as they do not have to go through the same tough approval process as GCSEs – and in some cases are not as challenging. In the worst case, students do not have to study Shakespeare for an English qualification, and their speaking and listening element still counts towards their final grade, despite the fact that we know it cannot be rigorously assessed.
To be fair, league tables have to be based on exams that present a level of difficulty that is as comparable as possible. England’s independent schools are some of the best in the world. But they have long maintained that they have different needs to the state-funded sector. We respect that. It is why, for example, they are not subject to Ofsted inspection in the same way as state schools. I am confident that schools still using IGCSEs will switch back to our new, world-class GCSEs in due course.
Clear as mud then. But presumably that was the aim of which ever aide was drafted in to ghost this hopelessly obfuscatory, non-explanatory apologia.
For example, it contrives to ignore the glaringly obvious fact that the reason these leading public schools chose those IGSCEs is because the home-grown ones had been so dumbed down that they were an insult to the intelligence of bright pupils.
To find out the background to all this, you have to go to the blog of Michael Gove’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings.
The problem, basically, was this. Yes, the IGCSEs taken by Eton and co are markedly more rigorous than the standard British GCSE. But that was because they were devised by an exam board, Cambridge, with great integrity. Not all IGCSEs, however, are up to this standard. And it was because of these dud ones that Ofqual – the quango responsible for approving exams – wanted to exclude the whole lot from the league tables.
When Cummings, supported by Gove, suggested that a better way would be to still include all those IGCSEs – such as the ones run by the Cambridge exam board – which were proven to be rigorous and effective, there was massive pushback from the civil servants at Ofqual and at the D of E. Why? First because, being civil servants, they want an easy life with simple blanket rules which require no effort to administer. Second, and more importantly, they wanted control. GCSEs were their baby. The international ones weren’t.
Hence that article’s weasel line: “I am confident that schools still using IGCSEs will switch back to our new, world-class GCSEs in due course.” Essentially, what Ofqual and the D of E are trying to do is blackmail the public schools back into using their preferred system.
So what can we conclude from this?
1. As the more honest and conscientious Conservative ministers are often wont to complain, it’s the Civil Service which largely dictates the Coalition’s policy – and not, as one might have hoped, the reverse
2. The Department of Education is once more, post Gove, a shambles – prey to all the political correctness (anti private schools; pro lesbianism awareness classes; attempting to pretend the “problem” with madrassa-type Muslim schools is exactly the same as the “problem” with Jewish and Christian faith schools etc) that Gove had tried to throw out of the window
3. Our academic league tables have been rendered meaningless but instead of admitting they’re meaningless, the current Education Secretary thinks that we’re all so stupid that if she just goes on the BBC spouting platitudes or gets one of her aides to write gobbledegook we’ll all be persuaded that it’s all in hand and perfectly OK.
4. In replacing Michael Gove with Nicky Morgan, David Cameron needlessly rejected the most talented minister in his administration and the one with arguably the best claim to have achieved anything truly radical (or, indeed, authentically conservative) in the Coalition’s sorry period of stasis and fudge. The temptation is to blame Nicky Morgan for being useless but that’s not really fair. Cameron is the one responsible for this, Morgan merely his hapless stooge.