The BBC’s hit show, Downton Abbey, became a soapbox for politicians in the UK’s ongoing debate about educational reforms. Graeme Paton writes in The Telegraph that Michael Gove, Minister for Education, slammed the Labour opposition for opposing his focus on core academic subjects in favor of vocational training.
“The current leadership of the Labour Party react to the idea that working class students might study the subjects they studied with the same horror that the Earl of Grantham showed when a chauffeur wanted to marry his daughter,” he said.
Pointing out that most ruling politicians learned traditional academic subjects in their childhood, he classed them as aristocrats who want to enjoy the benefits of their studies without making sure others have the opportunities they did. His implication is that schools are failing to teach core subjects of English, mathematics, science, history and foreign languages in a rigorous enough way to their students, because it is easier to give good marks for poorer work. The criticism is part of his argument for why reform is needed in the face of rising test scores. The scores, he says, are masking the true state of things.
Gove’s Conservative coalition government added a new certification, the English Baccalaurate (or EBacc), as a special diploma for students who achieved grades of C or better in the five designated core subjects. It was this change that exposed a weakness in Britain’s educational system:
Headline GCSE results soared between 1997 and 2010 but good grades were often achieved with a focus on easier subjects at the expense of core disciplines, figures suggest.
Fewer than one-in-10 students in 33 local council areas gained at least five C grade passes in EBacc subjects in 2011, it emerged.
Entrance into Britain’s political ruling class, as well as other top echelons of power and earning, has traditionally been won by attending the “Oxbridge” universities, Oxford and Cambridge. These schools still maintain very selective admissions standards and look for achievement in the kinds of learning that the EBacc will measure. Gove’s rhetorical approach of defending the rise of working-class students into the upper class is a way of turning his Labour opposition’s values back on them.
Gove was speaking at the Social Market Foundation think tank as a lead-up to his Ministry’s release of a new educational curriculum that will emphasize the subjects tested in the EBacc. Labour leaders were not impressed, saying that Gove’s focus is all wrong. These core academic subjects are not as useful in today’s world, argued Stephen Twigg, Labour’s shadow Education Minister.
“Instead of lecturing others, [Gove] should listen to business leaders, entrepreneurs, head teachers and parents who think his plans are backward looking and narrow,” he said. “We need to get young people ready for a challenging and competitive world of work, not just dwell on the past.”
Perhaps in a move to stave off such criticism, Gove recently announced that the EBacc will permit passing grades in computer science to count toward its science requirement. The computer science curriculum will require real programming, not just courses on how to use software to manage information. But Labour criticizes this move, too. Twigg said that the EBacc doesn’t take into account courses in music, art and drama.