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Gove’s baccalaureate bid has sharpened an old controversy, argues Nick Wright

 The artist and the actor had hard words for government education policies. Stepping up to receive the 2012 Turner Prize, video artist Elizabeth Price coolly attacked Coalition plans to replace the existing GCSE setup with a core Baccalaureate system more tightly centred on English, maths and science.

Speaking at the Tate Britain, she said: “The idea of young people not making art is an incredibly depressing idea. It seems to vouch for a utilitarian and impoverished idea of education.” Coalition government plans would “diminish the possibility for so-called ordinary people to have careers in art.

Picture above: Elizabeth Price, 46, who won the Turner with a video work illustrated here and inspired by the fatal 1979 Woolworth’s store fire in Manchester, paid tribute to the importance of subsidised public galleries in her own career and to the “egalitarianism” and “ambition” of her comprehensive school education in Luton. She said schools would obviously give less attention to the arts if those subjects were not deemed core. Such ideas demonstrated a “utilitarian or impoverished idea of education”.

“It’s not that individual talent or ambition will not be unfulfilled – which is bad enough – but that we’ll end up with a national artistic voice that only speaks about a very narrow experience, which is an incredibly depressing prospect,” said Price.

Jude Law – who presented the prize – echoed Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis in a sharply worded criticism of the Coalition’s proposals which, they said, would squeeze the arts out of education.

Accusing the Coalition of “cultural vandalism”, Law said the Turner Prize represented the “cutting edge” of the UK’s creativity. “There’s a real risk that fewer and fewer schools will provide learning opportunities in the arts thanks to an act of government cultural vandalism.” The consequences of downgrading art, design, drama, dance and music in the school timetable would be serious.

“We’re blunting our leading edge in the arts and jeopardising the future of the UK’s creative industries. Art education should be accessible to all.” Penelope Curtis said art students, who had staged a protest at the Turner prize-giving two years earlier, had been proved right in that the tuition fees hike had proved a deterrent and the numbers at Britain’s art colleges had dropped.

In proposing his latest schemes, education secretary Michael Gove may be taking a perverse pleasure in his deployment of the Maoist doctrine of the offensive – that the only real defence is active defence – but this was an ambush that he and his ministers may not have expected.

The baccalaureate proposal deserves a thorough debate and needs to be examined on its merits, but there is no denying that it fits into a government and media discourse around educational priorities that centres on the perceived performance of radically different regimes.

To some extent, this is a battle of competing statistics.

Gove’s understrapper, the radical right-wing children’s minister Elizabeth Truss, favours a Far Eastern model and points to the latest International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) science assessment which showed a reversion to scores shown in the initial 1995 study.

The IEA TIMSS (Trends in International Maths and Science Study) looks at the performance of over half a million children aged 9-10 and 13-14. In science, English 10 year-olds are now rated 15th out of 50 nations, falling from seventh out of 36, with the older pupils going from fifth to ninth in a group which reduced from 45 to 42.

Truss may be attaching more weight to this study than it can bear, but her stance reflects the powerful imperative to buttress policy choices with evidence.

Earlier this year, she set out her prospectus with some clarity: “A new, more rigorous curriculum is on the cards, with December’s expert panel highlighting top performing countries’ better grounding in key mathematical concepts.

The recently released draft primary maths curriculum provides a taste of what to expect. By the age of nine, all children should know their times tables up to 12×12 – currently it’s up to 10×10 by 11. And before they leave primary school, pupils should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions and do long division. This will bring Britain in line with high performing countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada.” With maths, the picture revealed by TIMSS is more nuanced, with English 10 and 14 year-olds maintaining their absolute scores but slipping in their league placing among 50 nations.

A measure of the difficulty in drawing very farreaching conclusions is the shifting framework in which such statistical exercises are conducted. English 10 yearolds are in ninth place out of 50 nations in the current study, but they were seventh out of 36 in 2007.

There are a lot of variables at play in such international comparisons, but the central thrust of government policy is unequivocal in its drive to replicate the Far Eastern model.

At the heart of what we might term the minister’s ‘Asian mode of education’ lies a powerful focus on fact-based learning regimes, highly structured timetables and rigorous examination schedules.

In its own terms, the Singaporean system is highly effective across the ability range. The 2011 TIMSS showed that the number of Secondary 2 students who achieved the ‘Advanced’ benchmark had risen to 40 per cent – an eight per cent increase from 2007.

PIRLS – the parallel Progress in International Reading Literacy Study – which assesses literacy of 10 year-olds, found that the percentage of weaker students had fallen to 13 per cent from 24 per cent in 2001.

Similarly, China has a strict regime with local testing every 10 weeks and national tests every six months. Test results are evaluated at school level and used to rank teacher performance, which is related to pay and promotion.

Teaching is a high status profession with a strong emphasis on continuing professional development. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) evaluation puts China in the high performing category, with especially good results in Shanghai.

This is all evidence of a kind but, as in all statistical exercises, context is all. Truss is prone to stretch the argument beyond what the facts might bear to buttress policy choices that have a very weak relation to her starting point.

There is always a tension between the imperative to concentrate decision-making at ministerial level and to use examination regimes to deliver targets with the less clearly articulated necessity to devolve power to schools.

Truss, echoing her boss, simply asserts that the academy programme is consistent with the reliance on a new examination policy to improve test results. The evidential chain is weak.

Elizabeth Truss again: “The lack of progress in maths and the decline in science, linked to the removal of compulsory tests for all 11-year-olds, is a real concern. That is why we are driving forward the academy programme and giving schools the freedom to make their own choices.

“That is why we are bringing in new rigorous exams that will be on a par with the best in the world and reforming the curriculum to focus on core arithmetic, algebra and geometry like high-performing jurisdictions.

“This is what they do in the world’s most successful education states – and we are following suit.” Of course, the Tory infatuation with the Far East may ‘blow back’ upon them. Already the top performing science and maths-based education regimes, especially China and Singapore, are broadening their horizons to take account of the more complex demands that modern and developing economies make of both their workforces and of their education systems.

In 2010, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao drew attention to the perverse effects of China’s testing regime, arguing that the Chinese school system needed to be more successful in developing innovative thinkers with strong analytical skills. “We must encourage students to think independently, freely express themselves, get them to believe in themselves, protect and stimulate their imagination and creativity,” he said.

Singapore’s education minister might have been eavesdropping on the Aspect Group’s own debates. This September, Heng Swee Keat asserted that every school had to be a good school and went on to announce the abolition of school banding by absolute academic results.

There is, he said, “no single yardstick to measure how ‘good’ our schools are.” He wants to move towards an education system that cultivates creativity; towards what he calls an “holistic education”. Schooling is “less about content knowledge” but “more about how to process information,” he says, and describes this challenge to innovate as being able to “discern truths from untruths, connect seemingly disparate dots and create knowledge even as the context changes”.

This article originally appeared  in the magazine Improvement http://www.aspect.org.uk


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