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
A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.