Will Michael Gove’s GCSE education overhaul work?

Students at the The Cherwell School, North Oxford, celebrate their results last week

Students at the The Cherwell School, North Oxford, celebrate their results last week

First published in News

WE ask Melinda Tilley, cabinet member for children, education and families at Oxfordshire County Council, and Wyll Wallis, Wallingford School headteacher, their views on whether they think former Education Secretary Michael Gove's schools refirms for GCSEs work.


Since the dawn of time, youngsters have endured lectures from their elders about how things were tougher in their day – and there can’t be anything more likely to induce a bout of groaning than the subject of school exams.

But after decades of ever-improving results and national pass rates nudging the 100 per cent mark, there comes a point when it’s reasonable to make the case for a more rigorous challenge. That is what the Government has done with GCSEs.

These are difficult arguments to make, as no one wants to denigrate the efforts of young people, or the fine work of teachers who rightly point to their own dedication and professionalism as a factor for improving results.

Even so, I cannot escape the conclusion that the GCSEs of say, the late 1980s and early ’90s, must have been a somewhat more daunting prospect than those of recent history. No one can provide absolute proof, but I would expect to see the growth of modular testing, retakes and coursework elements among the primary exhibits for the prosecution.

Oxford Mail:

  • Melinda Tilley

I would also submit that years of grade inflation have both accelerated and magnified the trend.

In the process our country has slipped a long way down the international league tables for school attainment.

Focusing more on formal exams will pose a sterner challenge and equip children with a better grounding in subjects, requiring them to retain a greater breadth of knowledge at a deeper level.

It will also allow teachers to explore their subject matter with pupils over a longer period of time, rather than simply focusing on the next piece of coursework or modular test.

If retakes are available for pupils who didn’t make the grade first time that’s great, but the practice of schools entering students to sit exams early to get an extra bite at the cherry is more questionable, and that is why the Government has decided to judge schools only on their ‘first results’.

Yet children can only sit the exams that the government of the day puts in front of them – the only constant being that year on year they do themselves proud.

I think all our young people in Oxfordshire have done a grand job and I wish them every success. I would also like to thank the hard work and dedication of our teachers.

I just hope any 16-year-old reading this won’t roll their eyes too much at this old bore.



In the first instance we have to work out what problem he’s trying to fix. When I first came into the profession about 25 years ago the issue was that universities and employers were saying youngsters need to be able to work more collaboratively and independently to deadlines.

There was also a concern with the way the curriculum and GCSEs were organised were very much against girls. Over that period education delivered what was asked for and girls now out-perform boys.

We’re sixth in the global education league table and second in Europe so you would say we’ve delivered what we were asked to deliver over that generation.

Now we’re being asked to reform for a knowledge-based curriculum with traditional examinations, which seems to be me to be going rather backwards. If that is what industry and academia now wants then fair enough but it’s been proven in recent history that if you reform too quickly you get into a real mess.

The last example of that was in the curriculum changes in 2000 when there was a shift to modular A-levels. They were reformed too fast and without proper trials, making it a mess.

The reforms that are coming up are being done far too quickly.

Oxford Mail:

  • Wyll Wallis

What we’ve got is a government that said they weren’t going to bring in too many changes now reforming the whole of key stages three, four and five in a three-year period.

There’s no possibility of a structure as broad and complex as education being able to deliver that to a reasonable standard that quickly.

There won’t be any useful pilots to check that they work properly and perform the function they are designed to do.

The two things the Government has used to drive up standards have been Ofsted and league tables. I’m happy with that and accept that and I see how it’s worked but it has started tinkering with it so much that it is beginning to make a mess of things.

By deciding not to measure a school’s performance by what the students have achieved but when they achieve them is a mistake.

They’ve made it very difficult for Ofsted to function properly because it will now go into schools with the first results so it’s conceivable they could be judged inadequate because of when they sat the exams.

It’s an unintelligent thing to do and doesn’t make any sense and I think they are morally wrong.

It’s outrageous to put a headteacher in a position where they have to choose between a league table position to make their school look better and the interests of the kids they are there to serve.

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