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. 

Getty Images.
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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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