Count to ten before supporting Gove’s proposals to bring back the O-level

I was beginning to feel quite warm towards Michael Gove’s plans for more varied qualifications within schools, and then I thought more about the detail. It seems that the proposals to bring back the O-level involve potentially highly damaging government intervention in the education system – and that is a bad starting point for any reform.

Over the last couple of decades we have seen the gradual nationalisation of curricula and examining boards. Under the influence of the governments of the 1990s, boards producing most of the exams ceased to be run directly by universities with a strong interest in the quality of qualifications and, in some cases, became run by commercial organisations. There is nothing wrong with this in principle. However, at the same time, the Government introduced league tables based on high-level summary measures of performance in the new government-imposed examinations.

There is almost an exact analogy here with what went wrong with the credit rating agencies and their rating of bonds before the financial crisis. Bond ratings were used to determine banks’ regulatory capital and the agencies had an incentive to focus not on the quality of the rating process but on ensuring that there was a high rating – their incentives were distorted with serious consequences. In education, the quality of qualifications has become secondary to ensuring that enough passes are achieved at the right level to get a school up the league tables: and the boards respond.

Personally, I think other factors are at work in the improvement in exam results as well – such as children and teachers becoming better at preparing for exams in an era where transparency demands more predictability in exam questions – but league table races are surely important in creating the “competitive race to the bottom” that Mr Gove has described. That race to the bottom, of course, has been encouraged by the Minister’s own continued and renewed focus on the very-high-level summary measure of achievement, the so-called English Baccalaureate.

This is a genuine dilemma, and I do not envy the Minister. The government does not seem ready to fully free the education sector and parents. Meanwhile, how do you hold state schools to account whilst not destroying the meaning of the measure that you are encouraging schools to target and by which you measure their performance?

This article originally appeared on Conservative Home. You can continue reading here.

Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also Director of the Vinson Centre and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of (interim) Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. From 2002-2016, Philip was Academic and Research Director (previously, Editorial and Programme Director) at the IEA. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Previously, Philip Booth worked for the Bank of England as an adviser on financial stability issues and he was also Associate Dean of Cass Business School and held various other academic positions at City University. He has written widely, including a number of books, on investment, finance, social insurance and pensions as well as on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and economics. He is Deputy Editor of Economic Affairs. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and an honorary member of the Society of Actuaries of Poland. He has previously worked in the investment department of Axa Equity and Law and was been involved in a number of projects to help develop actuarial professions and actuarial, finance and investment professional teaching programmes in Central and Eastern Europe. Philip has a BA in Economics from the University of Durham and a PhD from City University.

2 thoughts on “Count to ten before supporting Gove’s proposals to bring back the O-level”

  1. Posted 05/07/2012 at 07:47 | Permalink


    I share your concerns about the government imposing one exam and one syllabus on everyone. I believe that it is desirable that there are alternative curriculums in every subject – not a government-imposed one.

    One point though – You talk about “government-introduced league tables”. This is incorrect. Government started publishing various data on school results back in the 90s, but it has never compiled “league tables”. League tables are compiled by others independently, using this data.

  2. Posted 05/07/2012 at 09:58 | Permalink

    yes, that is true

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