Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Three things Michael Gove should know

This is a cross-post of a piece I have up over on Lib Dem Voice.

One of the things that seems to characterise tory ministers in this government is a remarkable attraction to putting ideology and an assumption that they know best ahead of little details like "facts" and "evidence based policy".

A good example of this comes in the form of Michael Gove’s education reforms which have been characterised by a breathtaking disregard for decades of research into what works and an aversion to listening to anything or anyone who disagrees with the reforms.

Nevertheless, I'd like to highlight the following facts about education which it would be nice if he were to pay attention to:

Starting maths early damages educational outcomes

Another feature of the Gove reforms is the insistence on starting on basic subjects like English and maths as early as possible in the belief that this will magically boost the numeracy and literacy of students. Unfortunately, evidence shows that, because of the way that children's brains develop, they aren't capable of properly handling abstract concepts like algebra before the age of 14. Trying to force pupils to learn topics like algebra before that age actually permanently lowers their academic results.

Big end of year exams are bad for learning

One of the centre-pieces of the changes to GCSEs is the insistence on scrapping all coursework and modular exams and replacing them with a single three hour exam covering the entire syllabus for each subject which will have to be sat by pupils at the end of their two years of GCSE studies.

However, the flaw with this approach is that all the evidence shows that big end of year exams are a terrible way of getting pupils to memorise information.

And the reason for this should be obvious from the experience of almost everyone who's ever sat a big exam - pupils cram for the exam shortly before they sit it and then the information goes out of their heads almost immediately afterwards.

In fact, the best way of getting pupils to remember information is to have regular, small exams (just like GCSEs had prior to the Gove reforms) to make sure that pupils are keeping up with the material - this has been found to raise overall scores by 16% and has proved so successful that Harvard University has pretty much eliminated them as a part of courses.

Academic competition hinders learning

Finland has come top of global educational rankings since 2000. The reason for this is due, at least in part, to their highly autonomous education system where there are no national league tables or exams with teachers being trusted to test and assess their pupils themselves.

And this approach is supported by evidence which shows that pupils in systems which focus on academic competition amongst pupils and on standardised academic assessment actually results in poorer mental health and academic results of pupils - mainly because they spend more time worrying about potentially doing badly in tests compared to other pupils.

So, there you have it, three important things about education systems based on evidence and research which Michael Gove should really know but which his education reforms ignore completely. It would be niceto think that someone in the education department (perhaps even Mr David Laws) might actually take note of the evidence and call a halt to the reforms in favour of evidence based policy but I doubt it will happen.

My inspiration for this piece came from this article which, despite its lighthearted tone, draws attention to serious educational research which politicians around the world seem to pay far too little attention to.


  1. Hi George, I rarely leave comments as I just like to read your articles. I was wondering if you was going to give a response to Nick Clegg's immigration speech?

  2. Also I do not like to give out any information of myself but do use the Disqus software which the independent and various other news websites use. I would then be glad to stop posting my comments as anonymous as I feel like I'm talking behind a wall.

    1. Hi, I haven't had much time to blog recently due to academic commitments but I will be writing something on the immigration speech soon.

      Also, I'm afraid google blogs don't support disqus but I've always been perfectly happy with people using a pseudonym like you are - the only thing I object to is when people just leave comments as "Anonymous" as that then makes it impossible to tell which individual poster said what.


I'm indebted to Birkdale Focus for the following choice of words:

I am happy to address most contributions, even the drunken ones if they are coherent, but I am not going to engage with negative sniping from those who do not have the guts to add their names or a consistent on-line identity to their comments. Such postings will not be published.

Anonymous comments with a constructive contribution to make to the discussion, even if it is critical will continue to be posted. Libellous comments or remarks I think may be libellous will not be published.

I will also not tolerate personation so please do not add comments in the name of real people unless you are that person. If you do not like these rules then start your own blog.

Oh, and if you persist in repeating yourself despite the fact I have addressed your point I may get bored and reject your comment.

The views expressed in comments are those of the poster, not me.