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.)
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.