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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle