The Problem with Gove’s E-Bacc: Intelligence isn’t about being a ‘know it all’.

In what could amount to one of the most significant announcements regarding education in England (and perhaps Wales) in many years, yesterday Michael Gove set out his vision for the English Baccalaureate.

I’ve got a number of concerns about this, including the huge expense that this is going to incur, much of which will fall on schools who will have to replace textbooks and provide time for training etc. on implementation of this new assessment. There are also serious questions about the premise on which Gove has decided that change is urgent, with major studies showing that the supposed fall in standards in England has been falsely reported – the picture, especially in relative terms internationally – is far more complex than Gove would like to put it, perhaps to appeal to certain areas of the press.

But these are ‘political’ and administrative concerns. My major worry is his proposal constitutes a massively regressive step in terms of intelligent and fair assessment, because the English Bacc will be assessed purely on a single 3 hour examination at the end of a number of years of study.

This, any teacher worth their salt will tell you, is a perverse and idiotic way of establishing how ‘good’ a student is. If what we are after is a measure of how much knowledge a student has absorbed, and how well they are able to reflect on that, and draw on it in a number of different and varied situations in a work situation, then a single 3 hour paper is going to show that – but it will only do so for a certain type of student.

And this is where Gove has gone seriously wrong. He and his Tory cronies have a view of academic achievement which is all about memorising large lists of facts. It is the tradition of the ‘know it all’ – the person who can recall all sorts of things at will, and spout about them endlessly.

This person is wonderful to have at a pub quiz, but then, are we seriously suggesting that the people who win the pub quiz are the most intelligent?

Gove’s view is that the ‘know it all’ is the brightest and cleverest. And this is seriously a retrograde view of intelligence. In the world of Google, we don’t necessarily need to remember so much. What we need to do is to be able to use and synthesise information in intelligent ways:

The information sea isn’t going to dry up, and relying on cognitive habits evolved and perfected in an era of limited information flow—and limited information access—is futile. Strengthening our fluid intelligence is the only viable approach to navigating the age of constant connectivity.

JAMAIS CASCIO in The Atlantic.

More importantly, many of the brightest and most thoughtful students I have taught, the ones who would add massively to any team, are not the ones who are able to sit down for three hours – yes, read that again, three straight hours – and communicate in written form what they can do. They work well in teams, they spark from other people’s ideas, they go away and reflect and improve and look stuff up and draw in things from other disciplines. They might work better in short bursts, or even have learning needs that mean that long assessments will simply not work.

Additionally, the proposal that grades will be allocated not on achievement, but according to relative achievement that year (ie, only 10% will be awarded the top grade) means that people will be competing against others for jobs, where their performance can only be validly compared with those who took the exam in the same year.

In short, Gove’s proposals are going to narrow the way that we measure intelligence, and that is a huge shame. That will consign many great minds – great minds that think differently, that are innovative – to the scrap heap, deemed failures.

The GCSE is not perfect, and modular examinations needed major review, but the E-Bacc is a nostalgic piece of conservatism that will drag education back to Dickensian times. It’s not good practice, and it’s certainly not a mode of assessment fit for a connected, Googling world.