Tuesday 18 September 2012

Gove's school reforms are a disaster for my girl

I am reading in the newspaper about the government's plans to scrap GCSE exams and an appalled sick feeling is rising within me.

It's a very familiar feeling. It's one I have lived with for the last few years as my daughter navigated the school system. It's a feeling I hoped had been vanquished by our success in finally getting her the extra help she needed. But by the time I get to the end of the article I am shaking with dismay and anger. A huge injustice has just been done to my daughter. The sickness is well and truly back.

The government has decided that coursework is out and cramming is in. Instead of GCSEs we are to have an English baccalaureate, with the emphasis on end-of-term exams, to end "dumbing down", says the education secretary Michael Gove. The new system, he says, will prepare young people for a world of university or work and give employers confidence in students' abilities.

I have spent every waking hour for the last two years fighting for my daughter to have the support she needs in order to be able to learn, so that aged 18 she can go out into the world and make her own way as a productive member of society with the best qualifications she can acquire. After two years of meetings and letters and late nights and stress and tears and panel hearings and paperwork, the local council granted us a statement of educational needs that gave us the resources to allow my daughter to learn in a mainstream school, alongside the rest of her class, a teaching assistant by her side.

Now, just like that, after that endless, endless effort, the government has disenfranchised her again.

She is clever, my girl. She loves words and art and history and is curious about the world. She also has Asperger's Syndrome, which means that she struggles with abstract concepts. She also struggles to concentrate on anything that doesn't fit with her colourful but narrow circle of interests. Timed tests are a torture for her: she panics and flaps and tells herself she is stupid and works herself into such a state that her mind goes blank. By contrast, the long-term projects she produces are things of beauty and learning. She enjoys them and immerses herself calmly in the subject. She learns, and remembers.

When I think of her having to prepare for the kind of mammoth, end-of-term exams that I did, my blood runs cold.

My abiding memory of preparing for exams at school is pacing. Back and forth, in my bedroom, chanting facts and quotes, checking and re-checking my revision notes, stuffing myself to bursting point with scholarly nutrition in order to regurgitate it all on paper in the pursuit of straight 'A's.

I was lucky: most of it I understood. A lot of it I really loved. Some of it I barely comprehended but knew which bits I needed to look like I knew.

I was also lucky because I was not fazed by the knowledge that I had precisely three hours to demonstrate my brilliance: three hours of fast, neatly clever calm condensing.

I was not a child with special educational needs.

Gove's new system puts me in mind of Mr Feeder's school in Charles Dicken's Dombey and Son, where pupils are ground down by a primitive system of education that simply forces facts into them. In one classroom scene, "two, who grasped their foreheads convulsively, were engaged in solving mathematical problems; one with his face like a dirty window from much crying, was endeavouring to flounder through a hopeless number of lines before dinner; and one sat looking at his task in stony stupefaction and despair - which it seemed had been his condition ever since breakfast time." Hour after hour, Dickens writes, "the studies went round like a mighty wheel, and the young gentlemen were always stretched upon it."

Gove would doubtless tut at my comparison. He has already chastised me and parents like me for our negative response to his plan. "Some will argue that more rigorous qualifications...will inevitably lead to more students failing. But we believe that fatalism is indicative of a dated mind-set; one that believes in a distribution of abilities so fixed that great teaching can do little to change them," he said. Where schools believe that children will struggle with the test, they can defer them until they are 17 or 18, presumably to stuff more of that great teaching inside them.

There's just one problem with this, Mr Gove. I'm sure great teaching can help my daughter to learn huge amounts, Mr Gove. But we're not talking about the teaching, are we? We're talking about the examination process. And regardless of how great the teaching, my daughter will fail if she has to undergo this process. And we can't defer until she's ready to take your test. My daughter will still have Aspergers when she's 17. She'll still be autistic when she's 18. And if this plan goes ahead, she will have been roundly failed by you when she's 19.


  1. So true and so scary. What is the point in going back to something that didn't work before? In fact, what is the point in treating everyone the same when we are all different? Maybe there should be a choice - but then who in their right minds would pick the exams?!

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