Gove's plan to scrap GCSEs will put a cap on ambition

The Education Secretary's "rigorous" approach could undermine a wider drive to raise standards for all.

Today's Daily Mail splash on the future of GCSEs, the national curriculum, league tables and exam boards has the air of a brainstorm session at Sanctuary Buildings that has been released before being fully thought through. Nothing wrong with that, if Michael Gove spends some time thinking through all the implications of what he is proposing. But he needs to be careful that his proposals don't end up undermining a wider drive to raise standards for all.

There are some perfectly good ideas in what appears to be being considered. It makes perfect sense to have a single exam board for each exam. At present, we have several competing boards, and this can see competition that has the effect of lowering standards. The effect of a single board, of course, will be to have a single syllabus in these subjects. Which makes the supposed removal of the national curriculum from secondary schools rather less radical than is being suggested: indeed it would ensure that academies and free schools work to a single syllabus. Lord Baker, the former Conservative education secretary, is right to argue as he did on Today this morning, that it is as important that technical subjects are examined at a high standard as well as Gove's favoured subjects like history and geography. Already they have been relegated as a result of Gove's focus on academic subjects in his English Baccalaureate measure in the league tables.

The second question concerns the proposal of splitting the GCSE into a CSE and O-level-style exam. There is a seductive sense to this idea if you believe that the only impact of GCSEs has been to "dumb down" education. But this is a tabloid caricature. It is perfectly fair to feel that there needs to be more rigour involved in getting an A-grade, but that doesn't mean writing off thousands of youngsters who could today strive for a C. There is a terrible canard in the notion that the use of the 5 A*-C benchmark itself denies ambition: in fact, a C is worth far more to a child than a D when talking to employers, and the existence of the benchmark has led many schools to push such pupils towards a grade they can achieve in a way that the average point score would not necessarily do.

But there is a good argument for saying that achieving an A-grade should be really demanding. With a single syllabus there is no reason why this cannot be achieved in a single exam, particularly since Gove wants to move back to linear testing at the end of two years (instead of gaining many of the marks through modules). That is not to say there is no place for more practical exams in English, Maths and Science. Such tests should be available, however, at the GCSE standard of level 2 as well as the less demanding level 1, and less "academically-minded" students should not merely be expected to achieve level 1. It would be a serious and terribly retrograde step to move in this direction, and Gove will find that it could have as serious an impact as Labour's scrapping of an expectation that all schools study languages through to 16 did on the numbers doing the subject.

This raises the issue of league tables and floor targets. And it is here that Gove could be making his biggest mistake. The big improvements in London and by academies over the last decade have been spurred in part by ever-more ambitious floor targets based on the five GCSE standard - five grade Cs or above, including English and Maths. It is a realistic but relatively demanding ambition for schools to expect a majority of their pupils to reach this level - after all, half failed to do so in 1997 for more than 30% of their pupils - and Gove has sharply increased the demand of the floor targets. Of course, one could set a target based on the average point score - giving different points for an A, B, C, D and E and adding up the best eight subjects - but this could have the perverse effect of lowering expectations in terms of breadth. And since there is no longer a strong incentive to use high GCSE vocational alternatives (in future these qualifications will be worth one rather than two or four GCSEs regardless of the learning hours involved), the main concern here has been addressed. By all means publish a five-A target alongside this, though in truth the EBacc is becoming the more rigorous target here.

Gove has time to get this right. More rigorous GCSEs, particularly for top achievers, do not have to place a cap on ambition for many other students. More practical business-focused English and Maths tests should not themselves be set unambitiously. And Gove should not throw away one of the most effective drivers of higher standards for schools in the process.

Education Secretary Michael Gove is set to replace GCSEs with O-level style exams. Photograph: Getty Images.

Conor Ryan was senior adviser on education to Tony Blair from 2005 to 2007.

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A progressive alliance in the Richmond by-election can scupper hard Brexit

Labour and the Greens should step aside. 

There are moments to seize and moments to let go. The Richmond by-election, triggered by Zac Goldsmith's decision to quit over a third runway at Heathrow, could be a famous turning point in the politics of our nation. Or it could be another forgettable romp home for a reactionary incumbent.

This isn’t a decision for the Tories and their conscientious objector, Goldsmith, who is pretending he isn’t the Tory candidate when he really is. Nor is it a decision for the only challenger in the seat – the Liberal Democrats.

No, the history making decision lies with Labour and the Greens. They can’t get anywhere near Zac. But they can stop him. All they need to do is get out of the way. 

If the Lib Dems get a clear run, they could defeat Zac. He is Theresa May's preferred candidate and she wants the third runway at Heathrow. He is the candidate who was strongly Leave when his voters where overwhelming Remain. And while the Tories might be hypocrites, they aren’t stupid – they won't stand an official candidate and split their vote. But will Labour and the Greens?

The case to stand is that it offers an opportunity to talk nationally and build locally. I get that – but sometimes there are bigger prizes at stake. Much bigger. This is the moment to halt "hard" Brexit in its tracks, reduce the Tories' already slim majority and reject a politician who ran a racially divisive campaign for London mayor. It’s also the moment to show the power of a progressive alliance. 

Some on the left feel that any deal that gives the Lib Dems a free run just means a Tory-lite candidate. It doesn’t. The Lib Dems under Tim Farron are not the Lib Dems under Nick Clegg. On most issues in the House of Commons, they vote with Labour.

And this isn’t about what shade of centrism you might want. It is about triggering a radical, democratic earthquake, that ensures the Tories can never win again on 24 per cent of the potential vote and that our country, its politics and institutions are democratised for good.

A progressive alliance that starts in Richmond could roll like thunder across the whole country. The foundation is the call for proportional representation. The left have to get this, or face irrelevance. We can’t fix Britain on a broken and undemocratic state. We cant impose a 21st century socialism through a left Labour vanguard or a right Labour bureaucracy. The society we want has to be built with the people – the vast majority of them. Anyway, the days of left-wing majority governments have come and gone. We live in the complexity of multi-party politics. We must adapt to it or die. 

If the Labour leadership insists on standing a candidate, then the claims to a new kind of politics turn to dust. Its just the same old politics – which isn’t working for anyone but the Tories. 

It is not against party rules to not stand a candidate – it is to promote a candidate from another party. So the way is clear. And while such an arrangement can't just be imposed on local parties, our national leaders, in all the progressive parties, have a duty to lead and be brave. Some in Labour, like Lisa Nandy, Clive Lewis and Jonathan Reynolds, are already being brave.

We can wake up the Friday after the Richmond Park by-election to Goldsmith's beaming smile. Or we can wake up smiling ourselves – knowing we did what it took to beat the Tories, and kickstart the democratic and political revolution this country so desperately needs.


Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.