The role of the national government in education here in England is much stronger than in the United States. The Secretary of State for Education, currently Michael Gove, is responsible for the national curriculum, which is in place in most subjects taught to children aged 5 to 13 and in selected subjects (English, mathematics, science, physical education and information and communication technology) for 14 to 16 year olds. We also have a national qualifications system. That means that the vast majority of 16 year olds take around 9 or 10 subject-based examinations at age 16 called the General Certificate of Secondary Education exams (GCSEs) and a large minority (the college-bound) take three or four subject-based A levels at age 18.
And Michael Gove has decided to change all three mainstays of English education - the national curriculum and its assessments, GCSEs and A levels — simultaneously. The reasoning behind this is that England has fallen behind its international competitors in PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS (we do about as well as the United States, that is, generally around the OECD average). The government also believes, with some justification, that GCSE and A level exams have become easier to pass in recent years.
The national curriculum
From September 2014, our elementary and lower secondary students will be taught a new national curriculum. It is based on a notion of essential knowledge, not unlike U.S. scholar E.D. Hirsch's core knowledge, and is meant to compare favourably with high performing jurisdictions around the world. For some of the main subjects — English, history, mathematics and science — the new curriculum is highly specified. There's quite a bit on England's cultural and scientific inheritance, as well as a good deal of prescribed content, leading critics to deride it as a blast from the past. Some examples:
- In mathematics students will be expected to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions in elementary school so they can progress to more advanced topics such as algebra when they go to secondary school. By age nine, students should know their times tables up to 12x12. Currently they only need to know up to 10x10 by the end of 6th grade.
- In English students will be taught to read fluently through systematic phonics. There will be a focus on spelling — government will establish a list of words that all children should be able to spell. There will also be a focus on grammar — for example, children will be expected to understand how to use the subjunctive as well as the correct use of the apostrophe.
- In science there will be a greater focus on the acquisition of scientific knowledge with new content on the solar system, speed and evolution. There will also be an increased focus on practical scientific experiments and demonstrations.
The changes to GCSE content are yet to be announced, but a good indication of the new direction can be found in the draft national curricula for English, mathematics and science. For example, the new English content is much more explicit than currently, and requires that students read: two plays by Shakespeare; representative Romantic poetry; a nineteenth-century novel; representative poetry of the First World War; British fiction, poetry or drama since the First World War; and seminal world literature written in English. This is an increase in the amount of literature students must read and a shift from contemporary literature to classics.
We do know about GCSE structural changes, however, all of which aim to create qualifications that 'match and exceed those in the highest-performing jurisdictions'. All examinations will be taken at the end of two-year courses, and the government wants little or no work marked by teachers. Few examination aids such as calculators or open books will be permitted. Examinations that include any extended writing at all will include marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar and there will be fewer highly structured questions.
While vocational courses will still be available for 14 to 16 year olds, the government is heavily promoting an English Baccalaureate, or Ebacc, which a student will get if he or she passes five GCSEs at grade C or above in English, mathematics, sciences, history or geography, and a language (ancient or modern). Schools performance will be measured on how well students do on their 'best eight' qualifications, which must include English and mathematics GCSEs and GCSEs in three other Ebacc subjects.
As with GCSEs, content changes to A levels have not yet been announced. However, the government wants A levels to be more aligned with university needs and has done all it can to involve universities directly in the creation of new A level qualifications, including naming a university based advisory group. It also wants A levels to be more demanding.
Implications of the changes
The proposed transformation of curriculum and qualifications has met with vociferous opposition. The critics fear that if the level of demand across elementary and secondary education is ratcheted up too quickly the already existing divide between the lowest and the highest achievers will be widened. There's a fear that students' grades will plummet across the board because of the higher demand (some people see this as a good thing, of course). The new national curriculum is criticized for being overly prescriptive, which will lead teachers to use rote learning. And many believe that the government's timeline does not leave enough time to properly implement the new design.
The government has also instituted a series of no less fundamental changes in funding and inspection. So it may prove a rough couple of years. Just the other week the National Association of Headteachers (the school principals' organization, and pretty mainstream) voted no confidence in the government's education policies. It is hard to say whether this is an augury of things to come.