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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.