In which I think about Michael Gove and it makes me go “Grrrrrrr.”

Last week I claimed I was going to blog about MPs voting on a 30% pay rise for themselves in the same week as approving a 1% cap on welfare benefits rises. It turns out that was lies, not least because it would be a very short blog. It’s pretty much obscene. That’s all I really want to say.

So now I can move onto other issues, and the thing that has caught my flutter-minded attention today is the intriguing phenomena that is Michael Gove. Mr Gove, the Gove-ster if you will, is Education Secretary. Just to be clear, that means that he’s in charge of education policy for England, not that he does the typing.

Since taking office Gove has had three main headline-grabbing policies. First he decided that he would send a bible to every school. Then he decided that GCSEs were too easy and he wants the young people of today to do proper old-fashioned manly academic exams instead. Today, he’s decided that A-levels, in their current form, are too easy and he wants the young people of today to do proper old-fashioned manly academic exams instead. And yes, I do see that technically, that’s only two policies, and the first one of those is just silly anyway.

The bible for every school thing is daft, not least because it’s pretty much the most widely available book on the face of the planet. The whole thing’s available for free online in multiple different editions and languages. Amazon will download you the full King James, Gove’s preferred version, to kindle free and gratis. If anything is holding back the educational progress of British schools, I think we can say with some confidence, that it’s not the inability to access bible texts.

So let’s have a look at his 2nd policy – the idea that young people today aren’t learning enough proper hard academic stuff and that exams should be harder. In both the replacements for GCSEs and the current A-levels one of the key ideas is that assessment will be by a single end-of-course examination, set and assessed by an external body.

Now that’s something I should probably be in favour of. I was one of those annoying kids who was good at exams. I passed the coursework part of my History A-level by writing the full 5000 word course work essay over a single night, starting at 6pm the night before it had to be handed in. Essentially I reduced the whole research-draft-reflect-revise coursework process into a 12 hour high pressure exam.

But I’m not blown away by Gove’s ideas, and I’m not blown away because I have no faith at all that he understands what he’s actually doing. Designing assessment in education is hard. Good assessments are ones which have reliability, validity and fairness.

Reliability, is sometimes called replicability. Essentially it means that if the same student, with the same level of knowledge/skill, took the same assessment at a different time and place they would get broadly the same result. Similarly, results between similar groups of students should be consistent.

Validity means that you are actually testing the thing you are setting out to test. This is incredibly difficult. If you are trying to assess knowledge of a particular subject, do you do it by ongoing course work or by single exam? Ongoing coursework might assess subject knowledge, but it also assesses research skills, time management, organisation, and possibly, ability to copy from the internet or get your mum/friend/teacher to write it for you. Single exam assesses subject knowledge, but also ability to cope with pressure, ability to write quickly, ability to cram or revise, and possibly, creativity and imagination in your approach to cheating. Coming up with a form of assessment that solely assesses the thing you’re claiming to assess is all but impossible, and I don’t think Michael Gove understand that.

Fairness means that all your students have a fair crack at getting a good result – it relates closely to validity. It covers things like not assessing students’ descriptive writing by asking them to write a paragraph describing the taste of bacon. Jewish students, for example, are likely to find that significantly harder than a child who’s eaten a full english every day for the last 16 years.

So, yes, review assessment and education processes. It’s important that we make them as good as we can, but understand that doing that is really difficult. Simply deciding to make it “tougher,” or “more academic,” or – and this is what a lot of education reforms ultimately amount to – “more like it was in my day,” is lazy policy making. And it’s policy making with no basis in evidence, and no basis in an understanding of how learning and assessment work.

Several eons ago I had a little rant on this very blog about the rise of the career politician, and Michael Gove is a prime example of why this matters. Gove is a product of the political bubble. Prior to entering Parliament, he was a political journalist and the chair of a conservative thinktank. If only there was some sort of training or job one could do that would allow a person to enter politics with some knowledge of how education works, or doesn’t work. But no… I can’t think of any such career. Oh wait. Hold on one tiny little second. There’s actually being a teacher. There’s an idea. How about having an Education Secretary who knows something about education, beyond a general sense that things were better in the old days, and that every child’s schoolday would be best commenced with a gown and mortar-boarded master reading verses from the King James Bible before requiring the boys (and weirdly in the mental picture I’m creating there are only boys) to recite their 12 times tables out loud until their tonsils start to bleed?

I think that’s all. In summary – Michael Gove: grrrrr. Comments please!