Michael Gove suggests that schools who enter GCSE students early in order to “bank” a C grade are, essentially, cheating. Some school leaders have criticised the tone of his announcement. Keven Bartle says they have a point: “The one element of twitter and blogging reportage critical of the announcement by our less-than-beloved Secretary of State for Education with which I wholeheartedly agree is the dismay that met the tone of the piece, particularly with the repeated use of the word ‘cheating’.”
I think I agree. As Samuel Johnson said (and I am not quoting him as an authority here, rather I simply adore his turn of phrase):
Sir. It must be considered, that a man who only does what every one of the society to which he belongs would do, is not a dishonest man. In the republick of Sparta, it was agreed, that stealing was not dishonourable, if not discovered. . . . I maintain, that an individual of any society, who practises what is allowed, is not a dishonest man.
And it must be conceded that any school that entered students early — either in the hope of banking the magic C grade, or starting a borderline C/D student on the treadmill of resit after resit in pursuit of the same goal — was not, in the technical sense, dishonest in terms of breaking rules: they were simply practicing “what is allowed”.
And what about their motives? That’s a more difficult question. Some schools, no doubt, did the deed out of a genuine desire for the best results for their students. Others, perhaps, could be likened to the “lions-led-by-donkeys” generals of World War One, heedlessly throwing underprepared cannon-fodder into the bloody fray in order to “move their drinks cabinet five yards closer to Berlin” (as Blackadder might put it), or improve their league table score by two tenths of a percentage point.
And therein lies the rub. Although early entry (or repeated entry ad nauseam) might be in the interest of a small minority of students, an over-reliance on them smacks of gaming the system
Sir, I do not call a gamester a dishonest man; but I call him an unsocial man, an unprofitable man. Gaming is a mode of transferring property without producing any intermediate good. Trade … produces intermediate good
And there (although he was speaking of gambling rather than GCSEs) I think Sam Johnson nails it once more. The frantic pursuit of exam grades for their own sake is an empty pursuit, and all too often the chancers, gamers and gamblers of the whole byzantine examination system have done their students a disservice, and been (in my opinion) unfairly lauded and feted. The “intermediate good” that their students were deprived of is hard to identify precisely but could include: the luxury of time to prepare (and be taught properly) for their exams, understanding that the exam is part of the process and not the point of the process, and that panicked random cramming (either on their own or as part of teacher-led “intervention” cram-fests) is not the way to understand complex and subtle ideas.
Gove’s latest animadversion apparently signals an end to “unsocial” and “unprofitable” gaming of the exam system.
I hope. As with many of Gove’s more sensible announcements (and there have been one or two), it’s not the animating spirit of the idea, but the inflexible, procrustean, peremptory finality of the rule change that could make it a change for the worse, rather than for the better.