Michael Gove does not own the GCSE brand, but we do

We are now seeing a dismantling of the three-country system for public examinations.

When faced with an injustice, it is necessary to take decisive action and to do so swiftly. On the day the GCSE results became public, I announced a review of why grades were so significantly down in English Language in Wales. My responsibility is to ensure fairness to GCSE candidates in Wales. Regulatory officials have identified the problems, and recommended actions, I am implementing their recommendations.

The report from my regulatory officials stated that a serious distortion had taken place. I asked the Welsh exam board the WJEC to regrade this year’s English Language GCSE results, and the report by my officials states that this year’s outcome “is unjustifiable and almost certainly unfair to candidates.”

Meanwhile, just last week Michael Gove told the BBC that he intended to replace GCSEs with a new exam system. It was the latest in a series of unilateral statements by the Secretary of State for Education relating to GCSEs and A Levels, usually delivered via media interviews, either on the BBC or through careful leaks to the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail.

Well, have I got news for him. The UK Government doesn’t own the GCSE or GCE A Level brands. They are owned by Ofqual (accountable to the UK Parliament), CCEA, the regulator in Northern Ireland, and the Welsh Ministers, who are the regulators in Wales.

Until Michael Gove became the Secretary of State, there had always been a three-country consensus on GCSEs and A Levels. Scotland, of course, has its own system – probably just as well, or “Gove-it-alone” exam unilateralism would be a strong recruiting officer for the separatists of the SNP.

Let me illustrate.

On 31 March Michael wrote to me stating the actions he intended to take in respect of A Levels. On 3 April, coinciding with a letter back to him from the Chief Executive of the English regulator, Ofqual, the front page of the Daily Telegraph was headlined “Dons take charge in A-level shake-up”. The article said:

“Universities will be given new powers to set A-levels for the first time in 30 years because of fears that the gold standard qualification is failing to prepare teenagers for the demands of higher education. Ministers will relinquish control of syllabuses and hand them to exam boards and academic panels made up of senior dons from Russell Group universities”.

In his letter to me, Michael Gove accepted that A-Levels were a three-country issue affecting students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But he failed to consult either the Welsh or Northern Ireland Ministers before rushing to the UK media with his plans.

The same could be said for his proposals to change the direction of travel for GCSEs, announced on the Andrew Marr Show on 26 June last year, again without Ministerial discussion with Wales and Northern Ireland.

The reality now, with respect to both A-Levels and GCSEs, is that we are seeing, without debate, a dismantling of the three-country system for public examinations. The Northern Ireland examining body has already decided it will not offer its exams in England. It had a tiny share of the English exam market compared to the Welsh exam body, the WJEC, but this was a symbolic and significant step. John O’Dowd, the education minister in Northern Ireland decided that they would leave the decision on modular GCSEs to schools, saying that Michael Gove’s decision ‘”did not appear to have been taken on the basis of clear evidence or educational justification”. In Wales, we too have decided to keep modular exams for the time being, while we are conducting a full review of qualifications for 14-19 based on evidence and consultation.

However, this summer’s GCSE debacle has made clear the politicization of the exam process in England. Michael Gove and the heads of Ofqual and Ofsted have all combined to talk down GCSEs as qualifications.

This means that in Wales we will need to consider the structure of our own system of exam regulation.

In July, John O’Dowd and I met and determined we would write to Michael Gove to express our concern about the lack of discussion with us on the future of exams. We wrote in August, and await a reply.

GCSEs and A Levels matter of course not just for individual students. They are also indicators of the overall health of our education systems. GCSEs are key to national programmes of school improvement, allowing us to judge how our secondary schools are doing. Action which results in the depression of GCSE scores  undermines the consistency of year-on-year comparisons and has an impact on the numbers of schools able to demonstrate genuine improvement in teaching standards.

And action that depresses A Level scores has consequences for David Willetts’ unrestricted AAB market for student number expansion by universities in England, with some universities finding the pool of AAB candidates available depressed below their expectations.

This is not joined-up policy-making.

When we met in summer 2010 I told Michael Gove that one of the advantages of devolution was that it allowed England to be a laboratory for experiments.

It is clear that things are moving fast. We will, inevitably now I think, end up with largely separate exam systems in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. It is a pity that we have come to this point as a result of hasty decisions and soundbites from the UK Government, and not as a result of a considered, evidence-informed debate on what would be in the best interest of all our learners. 

Leighton Andrews AM is the Minister for Education and Skills in the Welsh Government

Michael Gove with new education minister David Laws. Photograph: Getty Images
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser