Gove opens a new front in his education revolution

GCSEs to be scrapped but will a two-tier system improve standards?

In its early days, the government was nicknamed "the breakneck coalition" for its relentless drive to transform education, health, welfare, justice, planning, policing - almost every arm of the state. Since then, most ministers have since struggled to maintain momentum, with one exception: Michael Gove. The Education Secretary's quiet revolution means that nearly half of all secondary schools in England are academies, the biggest transformation of the system since the 1960s. Now, with local authorities and teaching unions in retreat, Gove has opened a new front in his war on the status quo.

The Daily Mail has the news that GCSEs will be scrapped in favour of O-level style exams, and that the National Curriculum will be abolished. Those due to start their GCSE courses in September 2013 will be the last to do so. From 2014, the Mail reports, "pupils will begin studying for ‘explicitly harder’ exams in English, maths, physics, chemistry and biology". Less academic pupils will sit "more straightforward" exams akin to the old CSE. In Gove's view, the current system has failed pupils as teachers have encouraged them to take subjects such as food nutrition in a bid to meet the requirement for all to obtain at least five GCSES graded A* to C (a target that will now be scrapped).

So, what to make of it all? The Mail has predictably welcomed the move, with an editorial declaring that "dumbed-down GCSEs" will be replaced with "rigorous O-levels". But others are more sceptical, rightly questioning whether the creation of a two-tier system will improve standards. The old grammar school system divided pupils into winners and losers at 11, the new system will do so at 14. Moreover, Gove's determination to create a more "rigorous" education system is seemingly contradicted by his plan to tear up the National Curriculum. If schools are free to choose what they teach, how will he ensure a minimum standard?

For now, these questions remain unanswered. In response to the Mail's scoop, the Department for Education has simply remarked: "We do not comment on leaks." What is clear is that Gove has yet again managed to set the terms of debate. As Fiona Millar remarked this morning, "Labour must stop being a commentator on Gove policies and come up with some bold clear alternatives that look to the future not the past."

Finally, one might also note that there was no mention of scrapping GCSEs in the Conservative manifesto. The government's desire to pursue policies for which "no one voted" (in the words of Rowan Williams) is well-established but as Andrew Lansley discovered, the lack of a mandate can prove costly. Given recent experience, the coalition would be advised to proceed cautiously.

Pupils wait for school buses in the playground at the West London Free School. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.