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
Show Hide image

MPs should follow Emmanuel Macron's example and stand up to the far right

Where does a liberal centrist's victory fit into your narrative of inevitable decline? 

“Après le #Brexit, le printemps des peuples est inévitable !” wrote the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, days after Brexit. Well, the blossom is on the trees, and Le Pen is through to the second round of the French presidential elections, so presumably we’re bang in the middle of that inevitable “people’s spring”. 

After all, a referendum that left Britain’s metropolitan elite weeping into their EU flags was swiftly followed by the complete overturning of US political and ethical traditions. Donald Trump defied polling and won the Presidency, all the while proclaiming he was “Mr Brexit”.  

Then, in December, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi held a referendum on constitutional changes and lost. Both Europhiles and Eurosceptics read the runes. Ukip’s on and off leader Nigel Farage crowed of 2016: “First we had the Brexit deliverance, then the Trump triumph, then the Italian rebellion. Democracy and the rebirth of the nation state!”

As this illustrates, the far-right want you to believe all these results are linked, and that they represent a popular, democratic movement. In the UK at least, the liberal left has drunk the English champagne. Labour is agonising over how to reconnect with “traditional” voters Ukip is apparently so in touch with – which don’t seem to include ethnic minorities, young people and those living in cities. Being “tough on immigration” is the answer to modern woes, and globalisation is a dirty word that can only represent multinational interests and not, say, cheaper food on the table. 

There are debates to be had about globalisation, of course, and the lingering impact of the 2008 financial crash, and the fact wages haven’t risen, and public services have been cut, and that in some northern towns, people from different ethnic backgrounds live segregated lives. But if the first round of the French presidential election can do us one favour, it’s to dispense with the narrative that there is something inevitable about the end of liberalism. 

Emmanuel Macron, an unapologetically pro-EU social, economic and political liberal, led the way in the first round of the French presidential election. The polls put him on course to become President.

If he wins, perhaps it’s time to revisit the narrative of decline. To remind ourselves that Hillary Clinton, now written off, won the popular vote in the United States, and among growing demographics of voters too. That a far-right  Austrian presidential candidate was defeated in 2016. That as recently as March, the Dutch mainstream prevailed against the far-right original Trump, Geert Wilders, and that the left-green leader Jesse Klaver enjoyed a surge instead. And that, although it’s now commonplace to assume Canada is just “nicer” in electing a liberal, Justin Trudeau, his party actually overturned nearly a decade of tar sands Conservative rule. 

Should liberals start to join these dots, voters should have the right to ask why both Labour and the Conservatives have jumped on the populists' bandwagon so eagerly. Why, among previously economically liberal Conservatives, are Nicky Morgan, Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry left as lone voices on the back benches. And why, in Labour, is patchy research linking depressed wages and immigration now exhalted as long-established fact? 

Liberalism may be out of fashion, but it’s not dead yet, as any of the Tory MPs in south-west marginal seats know too well. By the time Farage’s “independence day” on 24 June arrives, the narrative may have changed again. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496