It’s Not ‘Rigour’, It’s Politics!


OK, that’s it. Up with it, I will no longer put. For years, I’ve taken part in debates about education and nodded my head in a serious manner whenever someone used the ‘R’ word. I mean, what else can you do? Say ‘No, I don’t approve of rigour’? I’ve increasingly felt, however, that it was a word which was invoked for all the wrong reasons – liberals use it to show that what they are proposing couldn’t possibly be dismissed as touchy-feely, hippy-dippy,

 progressivism (God forbid!). And the conservatives only ever use it in deficit mode: teaching lacks rigour, we need to have rigorous systems of accountability.

Neither side ever defines quite what the word actually means, nor how what they are advocating will be more rigorous than what came before. Like its educational bed-fellow, ‘raising standards’, it’s vacuous, but boy does it make you sound tough…..

So, let’s examine today’s announcement from the UK’s Secretary of State for Education. Having widely trailled it weeks ago in the press (and been roasted by the teaching profession for it) he announced that the current GCSE examination was no longer fit for purpose, and that it would be 

replaced by the English Baccalaureate Certificate (now known as EBAC Cert). It was, he said, time to bring back rigour into the system. What were the elements of the GCSE that lacked rigour? Modularisation – out; continuous assessment – out; performance/practical based demonstration of skills- out. Instead, we will have single terminal, memory-based 3 hr exam. And, in future, exam results will be norm-referenced, with only the top 10% ever getting the highest grade, no matter how exceptional the cohort.

So, what is it about modularisation (also dismissively described as ‘bite-sized learning’) that lacks rigour? Most university programmes are divided into modules – are they all lacking in rigour? Does the fact that most educational prgrammes offer staging posts – places to evaluate, review progress, revise goals – make them inherently lax?

And what’s the problem with continuous assessment? Is it a sign of weakness that you flag up to a student that they might need to do more work to achieve their goals? Or that you find out where they’ve been getting confused and can put them back on the right path? Imagine your job appraisal interview in Goveland:

Boss: ‘Well, I’m sorry, Mike, but we’re no longer looking at your performance across the year. From now on, we’re going to decide your future on a single afternoon’s tele-sales figures. if you hit the mark, we’ll keep you on. But, if not…… Oh, and by the way, we reserve the right to move the mark to wherever we like, just so we can get rif of a few people in the sales team.’

No, I’m sorry. We, as a learning profession, need to call this out for what it really is: pure politics.

The Secretary of State prefaced his announcement today by saying we had ‘the best teachers and school leaders we’ve ever had’. So, why not listen to their advice? They are against even higher-stakes testing and norm-referencing of exam results. But politicians need to be seen to be acting tough, and too many young people succeeding means it’s harder to separate the sheep from the goats.

There’s NOTHING in what is being proposed for the young people who, because they come from difficult family backgrounds, might not fare well under the stress of  single, memory-based exams. Or those who find it easier to show their understanding of a subject through demonstration, or performance assessment, rather than a written exam. Or (like both my sons) those whose handwriting is so poor that they can barely fill a few sides of A4 in 3 hours, but they can type at 140 w.p.m.

If you really want to know what rigour means, consult Websters Dictionary.

“Rigour: harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment; the quality of being unyielding or inflexible; severity of life an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty;  a tremor caused by a chill; a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable.”

And THAT’S what we’re condemming our young people to – ‘a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable’ – unless we reject this attempt to take us back to a time when a narrow range of intelligences was elevated above all others.


One Response to It’s Not ‘Rigour’, It’s Politics!

  1. Bill C Martin says:

    Very well said, David! It’s time we, as a country, stopped allowing politicians with such a facile understanding of education to try to make their personal mark by tinkering with it every time there’s an election. Especially when the drivers for change are narrow political dogma, rather than a real desire to contribute something positive to young people’s development. This really does take us back 30 years.

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