Labour comes out against Gove's new exams

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg criticises GCSE replacement as a "return to the 1980s".

Since Michael Gove's GCSE replacement won't be introduced until 2015, with the first exam papers sat in 2017, Labour's response to the reforms is more significant than usual. As Helen noted yesterday, if elected in 2015, the party could simply scrap them.

So, where does Labour stand? Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg yesterday focused almost exclusively on criticising Gove's decision to announce the changes through the Mail on Sunday, rather than parliament, a reliable sign of indecisiveness (who ever heard of a politician leaking information to the press?). But ahead of the Education Secretary's statement to MPs at 3:30pm, Twigg has issued a more robust condemnation of the plans. He said:

The problem with these changes are they are totally out of date, from a Tory-led Government totally out of touch with modern Britain. Whatever the reassurances, this risks a return to a two-tier system which left thousands of children on the scrap heap at the age of 16. Why else are the changes being delayed until 2017?
Schools do need to change as all children stay on in education to 18 and we face up to the challenges of the 21st Century. We won't achieve that with a return to the 1980s. Instead, we need a system that promotes rigour and breadth, and prepares young people for the challenges of the modern economy.

While that's not a cast-iron commitment to repeal the reforms, the strength of Twigg's criticism means that it will be hard for Labour to avoid doing so. Elsewhere, Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband's consigliere and a member of the shadow cabinet, has tweeted: "I've spent 2 hours trying to find evidence to back the scrapping of continuous assessment in favour of 100% exam-based marks. No joy so far."

Update: Nick Gibb, who was schools minister until the reshuffle, has said that Labour would not able to scrap the exams if elected in 2015. Here's his (rather persuasive) explanation:

Well, [Labour] won’t be able to because schools will already be preparing for it from September 2014. They won’t be the government in 2014. If – and I hope it doesn’t happen – they win the election in 2015, schools will already be prepared and it will be too late for the government to change the policy. Schools will be already ready to teach these exams. We had the same issue when we came into office; we were unhappy with the modular GCSE English that was starting to be taught in September 2010. It was too late to change it and then we’ve seen the problem we’ve had this year because of that.

Education Secretary Michael Gove will today announce plans to replace GCSEs with new exams. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood