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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution