Education & Family

Analysis: 'Back to the future' school reforms

boy measuring
Image caption How schools are measured will change

In going "back to the future" with his unashamedly traditional approach to the curriculum, discipline, exams, and the importance of good teachers - and blazers - Michael Gove will inevitably win many supporters - but also critics.

After his headline-grabbing early announcements about the promotion of academies and free schools, he has now fleshed out his vision for all of England's schools and the pupils in them.

Pupils should ideally study a broad curriculum, be strong on the three Rs; be taught by highly qualified, dynamic teachers with good powers of discipline - and achieve good results in a rigorous exam system whatever their background.

Parents should be given more information about their children's schools - not less.

Few would argue with that, but some take issue with the government's ideas on how those goals are best-achieved.

The changes being announced are wide-ranging and have nearly all been well-trailed in the media (most were promoted by Mr Gove in opposition or in recent weeks), but could dramatically change the direction of schools.

The key words in this white paper are teaching, rigour (of study, of exams), discipline (military and otherwise) and achievement.

'English Bacc'

One key change is likely to be that a recent surge in uptake of vocational courses could well be reversed as secondary schools become measured on what the government is calling the English Baccalaureate. This will measure how well pupils do in a range of core subjects - maths, English, science, a language and a humanity - geography, history or music.

At the moment, schools are measured - in the league tables - by what proportion of pupils pass five GCSEs including maths and English at a grade C or higher.

It is not quite a return to the situation where modern languages were compulsory for children after the age of 14 - but it is a move in that direction.

Image caption Mr Gove says the UK has been falling in international comparisons

It is here that there is a tension between Mr Gove's desire to make schools freer - by slimming down the curriculum and the inspection process - and his desire to tell schools what to teach.

Head teachers' leaders, while supporting languages, say this might reverse gains that have been made in keeping the interest of less-academic students.

Estelle Morris, a former education secretary, has said the reason Labour stopped making children learn languages after the age of 14 was because so many were truanting.

But Mr Gove says children are more likely to truant because they arrive at secondary school unable to read and cannot make the most of the curriculum - something he wants to change with the help of the new reading test for six-year-olds and a strong focus on phonics.

Heads believe that once schools are measured on the five core subjects, effort will flow towards them, and away from vocational courses.

Mr Gove believes many children - especially poor children - are being led into making choices that are not good for the them but which boost school league table positions.

Vocational qualifications can be worth up to four GCSEs.

League table changes

This year's secondary school league tables - to be published in January - will follow the pattern of the last few years - but next year's will follow the new model.

For the first time, it will include a specific measure of how well children on free school meals are doing. The government has set itself the task of improving this group's performance.

And the exams the league tables are based on could be less modular than at present - with more emphasis on the results of final papers and a reduction in the number of re-sits allowed.

The changes, Mr Gove says, are aimed at raising standards. The UK has been slipping down international league tables over the past 10 years for maths, literacy and science, he says.

At school level, the bar is being raised on what schools have to achieve before they are considered to be failing.

Secondary schools will be subject to intense scrutiny if fewer than 35% of their pupils get five C grades at GCSE, including English and maths, and fewer students are making two levels of progress between the ages of 11 and 16 than the national average.

Only just over half of children in England's state schools pass five GCSEs including maths and English at this level.


The new targets could mean as many as 400 more schools are labelled "under performing", but head teachers leaders' are pleased that there will be some flexibility and that schools where standards are improving will not be put in this category.

The Conservatives had placed a high value on classroom discipline in opposition and the coalition now says it will make it easier for schools to exclude disruptive children without the fear of seeing them reinstated by appeals panels.

But the changes are not expected to herald a return to higher levels of expulsions, which have fallen in recent years.

Heads are worried they could be fined or be held responsible for the achievements of an excluded child at the end of their education if they are found to have wrongly expelled them, under plans being suggested.

The changes are not yet definite, though most are expected to be brought in.

There is a six-week period of consultation and intense lobbying is bound to continue as the debate continues about control and freedom and standards.

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