The schools minister’s defence of the new GCSEs? Fail

The restoration of rigour forms the thrust of his argument – and yet rigour is a quality applied only selectively by Mr Gibb himself. Had his article acknowledged objections to this narrowing of the national curriculum, the schools minister may not have been left quite so flat-footed by the announcement by the Russell Group universities that it is to scrap its controversial facilitating subjects A levels list, in order to give creative and less traditional subjects greater prominence. The headteacher of Bedales school writes in Tes.

He follows this with a potted history of reforms, and while he acknowledges that the system is not perfect and has suffered issues such as grade inflation, it is curious that he makes no mention of claims from serious commentators that GCSEs are no longer fit for purpose. The CBI has argued that they are irrelevant and should be scrapped, as has Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon.

I wonder what definition of rigour Mr Gibb identifies with. A common sense rendering can mean thorough and detailed, but it can also mean severe, rigid and austere. Applied scientifically, the idea means different things according to intellectual context. However, I suspect few academics would dispute that it requires the disciplined application of reason and method, and demands that we entertain all possible explanations in finding answers. By either definition, rigour surely demands that competing arguments at least be considered, even if they are then dismissed.

Mr Gibb goes on to defend the prioritisation of certain subjects at GCSE – notably maths and the sciences – on the grounds that these are what the public value. Nobody would seriously argue that these subjects are anything but important although, again, there are some curious omissions in Mr Gibb’s analysis. Lord Baker, very much an architect of the modern education system, has been vocal on what he sees as the squeezing out of creative and technical subjects in our schools, arguing that alongside the usual curricular suspects, young people should study a technical subject such as design and technology or a BTEC, and a creative option such as a GCSE in art, design, music, dance or drama.

His is not a lone voice: the educationalist Bill Lucas wrote in Tes that a focus on Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at school is not sufficient for would-be engineers. Rather, he says, the world-class civil engineering department at UCL has shown that undergraduates do not need maths or science at A level in order to excel. Lucas suggests that other subjects matter too, art and design in particular, in helping to facilitate the necessary habits of mind.

Arts education organisations have pointed out the devastating effects that the narrowing of the curriculum has had on the uptake of creative subjects at A level, and are now calling into question the value of the English Baccalaureate given the Russell Group’s change of tack. Mr Gibb’s ignoring such dissenting voices both offends the requirements of rigour and leaves him stranded on the wrong side of the argument.