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 problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt