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.

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.