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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage