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.

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The “lunatic” incident showed us the real Owen Smith: and it ain't pretty

Forget the slur - what really matters is what it says about his empty promises, says David Wearing. 

Owen Smith has embarrassed himself again. Having previously called for Labour to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”, advocated negotiations with ISIS, and described himself as “normal” with “a wife and three children” while competing with a gay woman to stand for the Labour leadership, you might expect him to have learnt the value of expressing himself more carefully. But no. Not a bit of it.

At a rally on Tuesday evening, Smith described Jeremy Corbyn as a “lunatic” with no “coherent narrative about what’s wrong with Britain”. It’s an interesting choice of words from someone who needs to win over tens of thousands of Corbyn’s supporters if he is to avoid a crushing defeat in this summer’s Labour leadership election. Indeed, we may look back on this as the final nail in the coffin of Smith’s campaign.

Let’s be honest. Most of us at some stage have used casual language like this (“lunatic”, “insane”), to describe those whose rationality we don’t share or understand. I’ll admit to having done so myself. But it is wrong. It perpetuates a stigma around mental illness and damages peoples’ chances of getting the care and support they need from society. We should all cut it out, especially those of us who aspire to high public office.

Beyond this, however, Smith has driven a coach and horses through the central premise of his own campaign. Throughout the summer he has presented himself as substantively agreeing with Corbyn on almost all domestic and economic issues, and only seeking to pursue that agenda more effectively and professionally. He has set out a range of policies - including a £200bn “British New Deal”, workplace rights and more redistributive taxation - that constitute an overt appeal to the social democratic, progressive values of the hundreds of thousands who joined the party to support Corbyn and secure a clean break with the neoliberalism of New Labour.

But it is simply not credible to simultaneously say “I agree with Jeremy” and that Jeremy is a “lunatic”. No one uses the word "lunatic" to describe someone whose politics they basically share. No one says “your diagnosis of the country’s ills is incoherent, and that’s the substantive agenda I want to take forward”. Smith’s remarks indicate that, deep down, he shares the incredulity expressed by so many of his colleagues that anyone would want to abandon the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron “centre ground” of deregulation, privatisation, corporate-empowerment and widening inequality. After all, Corbyn’s narrative only appears incoherent to those who regard the post-1979 status quo as self-evidently the best of all possible worlds - give or take a few policy tweaks - rather than the very essence of “what’s wrong with Britain”.

This incident will confirm the suspicion of many Labour members that, if he did win the leadership, Smith would dilute or ditch most of the policies he has used to try and win their votes. Those fears are well founded. Take as one illustrative example the issue of immigration, where Smith has shown one face to the party while suggesting that he would show quite another to the country, as party leader.

At leadership hustings, Smith presents an enlightened, pro-immigration, anti-xenophobic stance, but in a Newsnight interview last month we saw something rather different.  When asked if there were “too many immigrants” in the UK, he replied that “it depends where you are”, giving official comfort to the post-Brexit “pack your bags” brigade. He asserted that EU migration “definitely caused downward pressure on wages” despite academic studies having repeatedly shown that this is false, and that EU migration is of clear overall benefit to the economy.

Then, calling for an “honest” discussion on immigration, Smith noted that his wife is a school teacher and that schools in their local area are under pressure from “significant numbers into South Wales of people fleeing the Middle East”. In fact, a grand total of 78 people have been resettled in the whole of Wales under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. In the local authority encompassing Smith’s constituency of Pontypridd, the total number is zero.

This suggests, not someone who shares members’ values, but one who probably regards the leader’s pro-immigration stance as “lunatic”, and would prefer a return to the days when Labour erected the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention camp, rejected the vast majority of asylum applications from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and when Tom Watson put out an election leaflet reading “Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers”.

Smith’s problem is that his mask keeps slipping. And every time it does, the choice before Labour members comes into sharper focus. On the one hand, they have a man who lacks many of the managerial and communication skills for party leadership, but who shares their values and who they can trust to fight for their agenda until a credible successor can be found. Against him stands a man they may not be able to trust, who may not share their values, and whose claims of professional competence grow more threadbare by the day. It’s a poor choice to be faced with, but Smith is at least making it easier for them.