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.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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