Gove's handling of exam reform shows his contempt for devolution

The Education Secretary has offered no meaningful consultation to his counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland.

"Education is all about building bridges", according to the US author and journalist, Ralph Ellison. By contrast, the English Education Secretary, a former journalist himself, appears keener to burn, rather than build, educational bridges across Britain. The announcement last week that the Education Minister in Wales had requested a re-grade of Welsh pupils’ English GCSEs prompted an incendiary response from Michael Gove, who accused his Celtic counterpart of "political interference" in the exam system and disgracefully suggested that English employers might reasonably disregard or devalue the qualifications of Welsh job applicants as a consequence.

The charge that others are politicising the education system is, coming from Gove, risible. The GCSE saga, which began with his mid-summer leak to the Daily Mail on the return of "O-level style" exams, and which culminates later today with an announcement already trailed through the pages of the Mail's Sunday sister, has been political from start to finish. The leaks, the pressure on exam boards to revise grade thresholds and, worst of all, Gove’s refusal to do the right thing by those pupils disadvantaged by the subsequent downgrading and, like Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews, order a re-grade: all have been political in their method and motive.

How could Gove ask for a regrade, when to acknowledge the unfairness would undermine his political narrative of falling standards, grade inflation and the imperative for reform? Labour accept that reform is needed and we will judge his prescriptions when they evolve from press copy to policy proposal, but it cannot be right for him to play politics with pupils’ futures – especially those sat at the boundary of the C/D grades, whose next steps in life may turn on a percentage point or two. And, if the press reports are correct, it cannot be right either to revert to a 1980s style, two-tier system - a system that failed so many in the past.

Though the most important aspect of this shambles is the impact on the students involved, the row is notable for the approach to devolution that it exposes in the modern Tory party. Never convincingly enthusiastic about devolution, which emerged in the aftermath of the 1997 election and the Tories’ eclipse in Wales and Scotland, Conservative attitudes towards the settlement appear to be hardening once more.

The Prime Minister’s electoral appeal for a "Respect Agenda" between respective administrations now seems long forgotten, as Wales and Scotland (less so admittedly, now the prospect of a referendum looms closer) are mined by Tory ministers for selective statistics and cheap-shot comparisons that might deflect criticism from their own inglorious records. The most glaring example of this has been the persistent recourse of the Prime Minister to such selective statistics on the funding of the Welsh NHS, as a stock response to criticism of his dismantling of the service in England. The reality, as the National Audit Office recently recorded, is that spending per person in Wales exceeds that in England (£1,900 v. £2,017pa). But this detail is lost as respect gives way to political expediency.

The GCSE affair has raised this disrespect agenda to a whole new level. The leaks in the summer came totally out of the blue for ministers in Wales and Northern Ireland who, though education is devolved, have a shared responsibility for the GCSE qualifications - their design, management and maintenance. However, there was scarely a phone-call and certainly no meaningful consultation between Gove and his Welsh or Northern Irish equivalents.

What does it tell us that a Scottish Tory, ensconced in a London Department whose writ does not run in Cardiff or Belfast or Edinburgh, should show so little respect for the opinions or actions of the devolved administrations? Two things: first, that the Conservatives have abandoned all pretence of being a "One Nation" party; and, second, that short-term political advantage for a floundering Tory party is increasingly set to trump good government in the national interest.

Labour, the party of devolution, remains determined to act in the national interest, of each of the nations and regions of the UK and of Great Britain as a whole. Developing and deepening democracy in the UK requires that devolution is respected when different administrations, whatever their political stripe, take different decisions that they believe to be in the best interests of the people they serve. It also requires closer collaboration than we see at present between the different administrations, especially in areas of public services where there is overlap, mutual interest or reliance, shared markets, resources or challenges. Funding for social care or higher education are two such areas where collaborative reform and mutually agreed frameworks might afford significant benefits over the discrete solutions that apply at present.

The actions of Gove, undermining collaboration and fuelling pressure for unilateral reform of exams at 16, runs counter to such logic and forces Welsh Ministers to contemplate the break-up of the three-nation system. In Wales, Leighton Andrews has openly conceded such a scenario may now be "almost inevitable".

Faced with these concerns, Gove has two options. The first, responsible and respectful, would be to reach out to his counterparts and to work, collaboratively, towards solutions that might benefit pupils in both Wales and England. Of course, Wales might still decide in future, based on evidence and ambition, that a unilateral solution is preferable, despite risks of transferability and novelty, but they would do so out of choice rather than in response to arrogant force majeure. The second is to carry on as before, ignoring Welsh concerns, disrespecting different decisions on funding or priorities, and seeing devolution as just a means to score cheap points at Westminster. On the strength of this week’s performance, I don’t hold out much hope that Gove will pursue the tougher, former route, and that his crass actions will continue to strain the bonds that hold Britain together.

Owen Smith is shadow welsh secretary and Labour MP for Pontypridd.

Education Secretary Michael Gove with new education minister David Laws. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

Paul Farrelly
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I represent a Leave constituency - but I want to delay triggering Brexit

Unlike most of his colleagues, Labour MP Paul Farrelly refused to vote for starting Brexit negotiations in March. He explains why. 

Not quite top marks, but eight out of 11 will do - for the justices on the United Kingdom Supreme Court, who have ruled that our country remains, indeed, a parliamentary democracy. 

Furthermore, they have ruled that legislation is necessary to trigger Article 50, which starts the Brexit process, not simply a plebiscite, nor a government diktat fancifully dressed up as a "royal prerogative".

Last June, my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme in the area home to the historic potteries industry voted 61 per cent to 39 per cent to leave the European Union. Yet in December, I was one of just nine Labour MPs to vote - twice - against rushing for the door by the end of March, come what may.

It was the third time since 2015 that I’d defied the Labour whip (quite modest compared with our leader’s record). The last was when - with the Tories’ true statesman, Ken Clarke - I refused to vote for the legislation paving the way for the referendum in the first place. 

I thought it a reckless gamble with our country’s future, which profoundly disregarded the lessons of the past. Six months down the line, I now realise that, of the "December nine", I was the only one with a Leave majority (though not a majority of all voters) in my seat.

Why? Was it a political death wish? A deliberate slap in the face for my electorate, who have returned a Labour MP now since 1919?

No, it simply made no coherent sense to hand the government a blank cheque before Christmas, before we'd seen what Prime Minister Theresa May wanted to achieve, and given our verdict in the national interest. 

Does that make me – like the judges again, no doubt, according to Ukip, some Tories and the Brexit press - an "enemy of the people"? Certainly not. 

My parliamentary next door neighbour Sir Bill Cash, doyen of the anti-EU lobby, has spent the last 40 years defying the "will of the people" from the overwhelming 1970s referendum. So I think we "rebels" can be cut a little slack for wanting to ask a few hard questions to hold the government to account.

On the face of it, Labour’s continued, official support for the government’s timetable renders today’s Supreme Court verdict of little practical consequence - in the Commons, at least. 

In December, our front bench had tried to be clever, crafting a mild motion calling for debate on a published plan before Article 50, to stir a Tory rebellion. But the PM smartly agreed to the demands, tacked on her timetable and Labour got trapped into riding her coat-tails. 

But at least now, through amendments to a government bill, we’ll have the chance – and so will the Lords – to influence the terms of departure, and who in the future has the final say.

In the PM’s speech a fortnight ago, I was pleased with her commitment to protecting the UK’s science base. Last week, I was at the opening of the fifth Innovation Centre at Keele University’s Science Park on my patch, for which European funding has been vital. That’s been hammered out, until 2020, but what happens further out is wholly up in the air. 

I was happy as well, of course, with the passage on workers’ rights. Ten years ago, I introduced the Private Member’s Bill to stop abuse of agency workers – a Labour 2005 manifesto commitment – which was then delivered at European level. That was aimed directly, too, at tackling the sort of levelling down that, all those years ago, was already stoking anger at immigration in areas like mine.

But these were, really, just warm words for the wider audience. The key concerns for our industry, local and national, about tariff-free trade and access to the single market are still there in spades. And in the 21st century economy, we have not squared "control of our borders". The demand for skills, not least when incomers from outside the EU – the element the government ostensibly can limit – formed the majority in the last statistics.

The reality is that, once Article 50 is triggered, the government will not control the agenda.  That will be in the hands, like it or loathe them, of the other 27 member states. 

The PM’s statement was workmanlike, with no real surprises; but what hardly helps the negotiations are the frenzied Noises Off-style gaffes. For Boris Johnson to liken any French President, on his way out or not, to a Colditz camp guard just stores up more trouble for tough times ahead.

In my formative years, way before politics, I organised international youth exchanges. Every summer, teenagers from all over Europe gathered to tend war graves in Berlin – where wounds of conflict were still fresh, and the Cold War divided the city by the Wall. 

My involvement came from growing up in Newcastle - in Staffordshire, where the German cemetery from both world wars lies next to the Commonwealth memorial on Cannock Chase. I grew up believing that the European Union and its forerunners, for all their frequent frustrations, were part and parcel of the architecture of peace, not just prosperity. 

Those loftier arguments, however, got lost sadly in the bewildering trading of facts and fictions in the referendum. "Turkey, population 76 million, is joining the EU. Vote Leave." Well no, it’s not, but those huge, bright red posters certainly changed the tone of the debate in the last few weeks on many a street last June, not just in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
 
After a narrow 52 per cent to 48 per cent Leave vote, we are now, though, where we are. 

For Labour, on our front bench Keir Starmer has been trying to make the best of a bad hand. Thanks to the Supreme Court, he now has an extra card. But I still just don’t like the way the dealer has stacked the deck.

Paul Farrelly is the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme. He has sat on numerous select committees, and currently sits on the Culture, Media and Sports committee.