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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.