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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Why a group of Brunel students walked out on Katie Hopkins instead of no-platforming her

"We silently walked out because Ms Hopkins has the right to speak, but we also have the right to express our discontent."

Earlier this week, columnist and all-round provocateur Katie Hopkins turned up to Brunel University to join a panel in debating whether the welfare state has a place in 2015. No prizes for guessing her stance on this particular issue

But as Hopkins began her speech, something odd happened. Around 50 students stood up and left, leaving the hall half-empty.

Here's the video:

As soon as Hopkins begins speaking, some students stand up with their backs to the panelists. Then, they all leave - as the nonplussed chair asks them to "please return to their seats". 

The walk-out was, in fact, pre-planned by the student union as an act of protest against Hopkins' appearance at an event held as part of the University's 50th anniversary celebrations. 

Ali Milani, the Brunel Student Union president, says he and other students knew the walk-out would "start a conversation" around no-platforming on campuses, but as he points out, "What is often overlooked (either purposely or as a result of the fanfare) is that the conversation at no point has been about banning Ms Hopkins from speaking on campus, or denying her right to speak."

Instead, students who found her appearance at the welfare debate "incongruous" and "distasteful" simply left the room: "We silently walked out because Ms Hopkins has the right to speak, but we also have the right to express our discontent."

Milani praised the student body for treading the line between freedom of speech and expressing their distaste at Brunel's decision: 

"They have respectfully voiced their antagonism at the decision of their institution, but also . . . proven their commitment to free of speech and freedom of expression."

The protest was an apt way to dodge the issues of free speech surrounding no-platforming, while rejecting Hopkins' views. A walk-out symbolises the fact that we aren't obliged to listen to people like Hopkins. She is free to speak, of course, albeit to empty chairs. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.