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Realpolitik (see also Political realism; from German: real “realistic”, “practical” or “actual”; and Politik “politics”) refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on practical considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism.
"Manchmal werden Leute den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen."

Monday, 27 June 2011

023 - Finals vs Modular GCSEs: Why going backwards is not an option

In the latest of several reforms to the sector, education secretary Michael Gove has suggested that final examinations should make a return in the place of modular assessments, in an attempt to bring the UK into line with some of its more successful European and worldwide counterparts (predominately Finland and South Korea).

The latest suggestions from his department at Whitehall are the abolition of modular GCSEs and the return to a more holistic method, whereby a new syllabus would only be tested at the end of the 2 year course. Mr Gove has suggested that this will create a more "deep and rounded knowledge" for students and mean an end to a "culture of resits" that he believes will make eventual grades reflect actual performance and academic ability.

However whilst appearing a good idea on paper, this approach suffers some potentially serious issues.

Whilst it may be true that students do indeed re-sit failed module exams to improve their overall grades, they do this amidst increasing pressures both academically and economically. Higher education tuition fees are set to rise in September 2012 to £9,000 per annum at a majority of universities alongisde 40% budget cuts to wider HE funding, EMA cutbacks, graduate employment is appallingly low as 1 in 5 are unemployed and non-graduate employment places students in the midst of a struggling economy which has failed to grow for the past 6 months despite significant budget cuts. Further to this, teachers are set to strike on 30th June in response to changes to pensions. To remove the option to have a second chance further increases pressure on students. Whilst it is fair arguably to ensure rigorous and effective assessment - which may involve pressures beyond a student's control - and that multiple re-sits should be curtailed and avoided, it appears that consecutive policy announcements are serving to disaffect students from poorer backgrounds - already an area of cocnern - or little opportunity to obtain outside support and tutoring from furthering their education.

Further to this, failing exams can sometimes have a positive effect psychologically on some students, who realise that the option to re-sit a module represents the opportunity to re-stabilise their education. Indeed Fiona Pocock, principle of Oxford Tutorial College argues that:

"After the disappointment of getting poor grades the first time around, they [students] find that a period of concentrated study helps them mature intellectually and achieve a new self confidence."

To return to a system whereby such students are denied this option will completely undermine student confidence, already at a low following the aforementioned changes to the education sector.


Mr Gove has re-iterated his belief that holistic teaching over 2 years provides a better understanding than modular teaching can provide, which curtails students and staff to striving simply to pass exams, in the same manner as jumping through hoops. Since results ultimately influence the dreaded league tables, making the education system more inaccessible to students will only further develop such a culture as tutors are forced to rigorously teach to exam requirements to ensure all students can pass, so that their institution is not affected by investigations surrounding drops in performance. The assumption that increases in exam success equates to a dumbing down of the education system is frequently peddled. Whilst this has some merit, it is all too willingly used to demean the hard work of students and rubbish any actual improvements to the education system such as teacher training improvements, educational research and resource/technological developments.

Surely it would be more concerning if success rates dropped or reached a plateau? Professor Gordon Stobart from the Institute of Education has compared such media speculation to the climbing of Mount Everest:
"In 1953 two people got to the top of Everest, an extraordinary achievement at the time. Yet on a single day in 1996, 39 people stood on the summit. That might suggest that Everest had become 20 times easier to climb. Yet the mountain remains the same height."
To continue the comparisons against other education systems and previous UK systems belittles cultural and economic differences facing students in the UK. Perhaps Mr Gove would be better suited to focusing more inwardly than outwardly, and reducing his need to 'keep up with the Jones'' in favour of a more suitable education system for this country.

There has been much media hype surrounding modular assessment and the 'dumbing down' of qualifications. However as mentioned above a modular approach does not necessarily result in an easier syllabus. Further to this, Mr Gove has also recently proposed that the school leaving age be raised to 18, and then in May that no student should be allowed to leave the system without attaining GCSE Maths and English. This is surprising and asks inevitable questions about how he intends to make this possible when obtaining such qualifications becomes more inaccessible. Modular courses invariably result in consistent assessment of performance due to increased numbers of exams, ensuring that students are consistently tested on knowledge and development.

For instance if a student fails a modular GCSE Maths or English course, what is to suggest that such a student would benefit from a less structured and less accessible course where a final exam is taken at the end of 2 years? Furthermore to force students to consistently re-sit these qualifications until they are successful is ignorant of the damage to confidence that any consistent failure - and non-acceptance for employment as a result - will create. Potentially a course designed to develop functional literacy and numeracy would be more suitable to their needs.

It appears Michael Gove has proven the unthinkable: He knows less about education than was originally feared.

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