A Level results and leaping Home Counties teenagers

It's a comforting newspaper staple, but surely all a bit old hat now?

Across the country, photogenic blonde teenagers have been jumping into the air to celebrate their exam results, in a tale as old as time.

The less photogenic, less blonde teenagers have probably been getting results too (and possibly jumping) but who cares about them? They're grubby, and probably smoke and smell of colleges and readymeals, and some of them don't look like English Roses, so who gives a shit about them?

This year, the Sexy A-Levels tumblr has decided to call it a day. Its work is done, and the tropes are so well known now we can all recite them without a second thought. The mid-air suspension photo. The leaping girls. The "excitedly opening an evelope" photograph. The token boffin kid to try and convince you this isn't all about 18-year-old cheesecake.

We know it off by heart. It's one of those stories that is the same every time, dreaded by a swathe of journalists up and down the land. The same words, just in a slightly different order, but you could pretty much do it to a template: "students celebrated... blah de blah... results went up/down... blah de blah... someone from the government said... someone from somewhere else said... prodigy kid... someone who got a lot of A-levels..." and so on and so on.

It's comfortable, familiar, a nice old pair of slippers. It's like that day when temperatures are slightly warm and newspapers break out the graphics of a cartoon sun, wearing sunglasses, next to a thermometer showing the temperature in Fahrenheit and a picture of some random "beauties" on a beach somewhere.

One of the stories (if there is a story) to this year's results is that boys have caught up with girls, so naturally we're going to get loads of pictures of boys, right? Er, well, no. "Teenagers celebrate as they get A-level results" whooped the Mail Online, and it was a parody of what you'd imagine the Daily Mail to do.

There they were, the leaping Home Counties teenage girls, forever suspended in mid-air with a piece of paper and an envelope. No boys in sight, of course, ugh, who wants to see them? Or maybe it just so happened that every time a male walked into range of a camera lens, the shutter accidentally didn't go off. We can't say for certain.

It has just become a strange ritual, this yearly parade of young female flesh, a May Queen for the newspaper age. It doesn't tell us anything about exams, or education, or anything like that. Of course, those debates are being covered, and covered very well - see the Telegraph or Guardian's liveblogs. But elsewhere, the same tired old images dominate. It's a bit old hat.
 

Lovely A Level students jumping for joy. Yawn. Photograph: Getty Images
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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories