Gove’s “English baccalaureate” is a fig leaf for inaction

Rather than attempt to reform England’s overcomplicated exam system, Gove’s plan offers more of the

Michael Gove yesterday announced plans to introduce an English baccalaureate -- a certificate awarded to pupils who pass five or more GCSEs at grade C or above, including English, maths, a science, a foreign language and one of the humanities. The intention is to recognise and reward students who take a broad range of subjects and stem the exodus from old popular subjects, such as foreign languages and history.

While the aim is noble, the means are deeply flawed. An English baccalaureate won't solve the problem of grade inflation, nor will it simplify England's cumbersome and overcomplicated exam system. A baccalaureate is a fudge and little more than a fig leaf for inaction.

An "English bac" won't stretch bright pupils any further. High achievers are already encouraged to take languages and humanities anyway, as universities prefer these qualifications. Employers and universities will still be left with a glut of excellent grades to sift through. Students will not learn anything extra or more challenging -- all they will receive is another certificate.

Nor will the "English bac" make the oft-criticised vocational subjects any more respectable among universities and employers. There is absolutely no reason why vocational qualifications in ICT, engineering, or even the much-maligned media studies should not be rigorous and useful. An English baccalaureate rewards pupils who steer clear of such subjects, undermining the diploma system even further.

As it is, secondary education in England today is a barely coherent mishmash, with GCSEs and A-levels mixed in with BTecs and diplomas. Ostensibly, each qualification is the equivalent of the other; in reality, there's a hierarchy. Top schools and middle-class parents encourage students to take only well-regarded GCSEs and A-levels, and to leave BTecs and diplomas well alone.

The students at bog-standard comps, meanwhile, are lumbered with worthless qualifications that universities don't want and that employers don't need, as schools prop up their League ranking by shepherding students into less challenging subjects. The last thing the system needs is another tier of qualifications, complicating it further.

Rather than reforming, Gove is tinkering. The English baccalaureate will change nothing. Gove is continuing Labour's long-term education policy of ignoring calls to integrate secondary education properly in England.

In 2004, after two years' work, the Tomlinson report was released. It called for comprehensive reform of secondary education and the introduction of an integrated diploma system that would allow academic and vocational elements under the same, overarching system. The report was completely ignored by the Labour government. Instead, the English secondary education system was left as a complete Horlicks.

If Gove is serious about reforming education, he should start by sorting out the qualifications on offer, making the system comprehensive and understandable, and removing the innuendo that dictates which subjects are respectable and which aren't. Gove calls his proposals "formidable reform", but an English baccalaureate is just more insipid tinkering at the edges.

Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496