Of effort and ability

Since becoming Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has outlined plans for a change to A-Levels, beginning here with ‘fewer, more rigorous exams’ and the end of modular courses; and a new ‘national ranking system for students, here. Such policy statements, of course, depend on the assumption that standards have declined and must be restored, as in his aim ‘to make exam questions harder … [and] restore confidence in the system’, here. In this post I wish to dwell on this article in the Daily Mail, an attack on ‘crude social engineering’ in the form of a plot by ‘the Left-wing education establishment’, ie ‘the deluded notion that background matters more than ability’. In defence of standards Gove challenges what has now become a ‘bizarre notion’, the view that, having ‘attended a poor school’, one ‘should be able to automatically leapfrog students who possess stronger A-Levels in the race for university places’. Weaker students, as a matter of course, have been allowed to use inferior schooling as a form of certification. By implication the ‘stronger’ candidate has had the misfortune to attend a good school.

Most obviously, Gove’s article should be read alongside Sutton Trust research that outlines the advantage one receives from attending one of a small number of schools; or, more recently, fall-out from the decision to raise tuition fees. However, I shall go back to the so-called Bristol Affair in 2002, when admissions tutors were accused of discriminating in favour of students from state schools, at the expense of students from private schools (and this account by Melanie Phillips suggests that Gove has merely conformed to hysterical Daily Mail house style). In response, Bristol University pointed out that ‘traditional admissions criteria’ were inadequate: ‘We are … adopting a more sophisticated approach to identifying academic potential. Excellence exists in schools of both kinds, and we have a duty to find it.’ (This argument, of course, should be familiar to students who have had to sit an entrance exam because the university in question insists that exam results are ‘inadequate’ as a means to selection; but that is a topic for another time.) Then, in 2005, the Times Higher Education claimed a scoop in exposing the admissions policy at Bristol: ‘Admissions tutors have been told to apply two filters to ensure that the system is weighted in favour of bright but disadvantaged pupils.’ In essence, the ‘two filters’ approach meant that Bristol was using a form of affirmative action (not, so far as I am aware, their wording; and not, of course, the same as positive discrimination, which is what Gove bemoans, above). Subsequently, Hoare & Johnston (2010) studied admissions to Bristol University, finding that, even though private school students had better A-Level results upon entry to degree courses, ‘students from state schools with such high scores are more likely to achieve the highest degree grade than are students with similar scores who attended independent schools’ (18). A similar conclusion was reached in the Milburn Report, Unleashing Aspiration (2009, 92-94).

Given that Hoare & Johnston (2010) provide a statistical analysis, one might investigate the validity of their results (and that too is a topic for another time). Nonetheless, the Govean dilemma is clear. Firstly, he wants a system that can measure students’ achievement in crude, positivist fashion without disturbing the status quo. Secondly, as elsewhere in education, we are asked to believe that social class no longer matters; there are ‘good schools’ and ‘failing schools’ defined solely by the competence of teachers. As Gove writes in the Daily Mail article, ‘excellent teachers’ are those ‘who [don’t] make excuses about their pupils’ backgrounds’.

The A-Level system has always been elitist, catering to the needs of a small minority of students; and this elitism hides behind the contradiction inherent in any meritocratic project, that effort must be reconciled to innate ability. Effort, in short, should simply confirm natural talent, otherwise it is mere compensation. Gove writes of ‘the simple and old-fashioned expedient of giving the most able students the highest grades’; and this is code for norm-referencing, when achievement was defined in terms of one’s place in relation to others in the hierarchy. A few lines down he is sympathising with those ‘hard-working students’ with ‘a string of great passes’ who then find their results do not ‘mark them out from the crowd or guarantee a cherished college place’. Here, to make sense, ‘hard-working’ can only mean ‘most able’, that is, those who should stand out on the basis of innate ability. He then complains of the lack of differentiation and the numbers walking off with a clutch of A stars’ (an award he thinks should be based on norm-referencing, of course). Only a small minority can, or should, ever be successful; and only a small minority should see their effort rewarded. Gove dreams of a return to the 1950s. His deception (borrowed, of course, from those times) is that any other scenario for higher education must result in a dilution of standards, the inevitable consequence when working-class students benefit from positive discrimination.

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