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The problem with these changes are they are totally out of date, from a Tory-led Government totally out of touch with modern Britain.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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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