Call Michael Gove: I've got an idea

How to solve the schools crisis.

In the past, my only engagement with O-levels was the ordeal of constantly correcting the O-level generation whenever they tried to ask me about my GCSEs, and then, when I was lucky, enjoy a rant about the New World and its confusing acronyms. So that gives some explanation to Michael Gove's O-level reversion. But all I see is the amplification of elitism in the education system.

Gove introduces his two-tiered grading system on the claim that GCSEs are too easy and too many of these snot-nosed brats are skipping out of school with exemplary qualifications. But whether a single A* graded GCSE student ends up more intelligent than an A graded O-level student is irrelevant; generations will be coming off the factory line in two clear categories of intelligence, with only 30% holding qualifications that universities will give a second glance. And as we all know, these days anyone applying for at least a medium-rate job without a university diploma should be shipped straight back to their mother's basement.

The problem isn't that too many people prance away with A grades; the problem is that the only skill taught is how to pass an exam, and very few workplaces hold jobs that require mastered geography essay structures or memorised verb tables. What Gove is getting wrong is our entire motivation for education.

The motivation we see here all amounts to the same thing: creating a Huxleian dystopia within the education system. Through all our schools, state and private alike, children are bottled into the grade of human that society requires. With GCSEs there was less of a grip on the outcomes: pupils would have drummed into them the techniques for passing exams that will get them into universities in the hope that eventually they will amount to Something. But the forsaken, those who slipped through the cracks into Nothing, were doomed to be Epsilons. Once fallen, these people were often ignored; someone has to wash up the test tubes and refill the fountain pens!

Perhaps, as the educational motive behind GCSEs always complied with Huxley's John the Savage (“why don't you make everybody an Alpha Double Plus?”), it can't be helped when the system accidentally creates Epsilons, because we had good intentions! Well, Gove, reintroducing O-levels and CSEs for less able students doesn't stop this Survival of the Fittest mechanism, it just makes the creation of Epsilons more deliberate.

Supporters of the reform may argue that CSEs allow skills outside of academia to be valued as well. I whole-heartedly agree that egg-heads are not the most important type of head. But the reform won't solve the issue. It is deeply ingrained in the system that academia is rewarded higher than anything else. Whenever teachers fretted over exams on our behalf, it was always for the sake of our university applications. This mentality doesn't go away at the snap of Gove's fingers. CSEs will be imposed on 14-year-olds, at that point permanently deemed Lost Causes, and universities will write them off forever, blasting an enormous portion of their potential employment into the abyss of the unattainable.

But fear not! I have taken the liberty of devising a solution that recognises both academic and practical achievements in equal merit. I propose all school uniforms be scrapped and replaced with a universal scout uniform. No longer shall students receive note of their educational abilities on paper, no: they will be able to proudly sew their achievements to their clothes. Achievement badges will include advantages for the egg-headed, such as the “Having an Educated Opinion on Sartre” badge (featuring a big, existential question mark) and “Understanding and Applying Standard Deviation”.

For the more practical-minded, be excited to sport the delightful “Ordering Food in French”, “Interacting Positively with a Customer” or the renowned “Wearing Motorcycle Leather in 30 Degrees”. Someone call Michael Gove and tell him I've cracked it. Then give him a “Resorting to Outdated Solutions” badge.

Michael Gove. (Getty Images.)
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”