Having failed to do his homework, Gove flunked the exam

The Education Secretary's decision to bow to his critics and retain GCSEs is, in a competitive field, the most humiliating retreat yet from a coalition minister.

It looks like rumours of the death of GCSEs have been greatly exaggerated. In a statement to the Commons at 11:30am today, Michael Gove, the man lionised by Conservative MPs as the coalition's greatest reformer, will announce that the exams will not, after all, be scrapped in favour of English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs). (N.B. it is these new qualifications, rather than the English Baccalaureate or EBacc, a performance indicator, which measures the percentage of students in a school who achieve grades A*-C in English, maths, two sciences, a foreign language and history or geography at GCSE level that have been abandoned. Confusing, I know.) 

Under the original plan, 14-year-olds were due to begin studying for EBCs in English, maths and science from 2015, with the first exams sat in 2017, to be followed by history, geography and languages in 2018. They will now sit GCSEs instead. In addition, Gove will announce that his plan to introduce a single exam board for each subject has been scrapped after he was warned by civil servants that it could breach EU procurement law (a pity since this is the one measure that really would have halted the "race to the bottom" that Gove has rightly denounced). 

So, why the change of course from the coalition's Robespierre? Largely because the Liberal Democrats, the education select committee, former Conservative education secretary Kenneth Baker (who told me that he "didn't know" how Gove was going to introduce his exam reforms) and Ofqual were all, to varying degrees, telling Gove that replacing GCSEs with EBCs was a terrible idea. The select committee, for instance, said last week: "We have not seen any evidence to suggest that the proposed changes will be more successful than GCSEs in addressing underachievement or in narrowing the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged students and their peers." Its Conservative chair Graham Stuart said: "Ministers want to introduce a new qualification, require a step change in standards, and [want to] alter the way exams are administered, all at the same time. We believe this is trying to do too much, too quickly, and we call on the government to balance the pace of reform with the need to get it right." Gove's humiliating retreat (in a competitive field, the most dramatic yet from a coalition minister) suggests that he now agrees, although it is worth asking whether the reforms would be proceeding under a Conservative majority government. 

The Education Secretary will, however, rightly point out that the post-14 exams system is still being radically reshaped. The modular system will be scrapped in favour of one examination sat at the end of the two-year period; extension papers in maths and science will be introduced for the brighest pupils; English and history papers will feature more extended writing and maths and science papers more problem solving; and a new National Curriculum will be introduced, with, the Telegraph reports, "a focus on multiplication tables and mental arithmetic in maths, an emphasis on grammar, punctuation, spelling and pre-20th Century literature in English and a clear chronology of British and world events in history."

In addition, league tables, which currently rank schools by the proportion of pupils gaining five A* to C grades, will be reformed so that they now list performance in eight subjects, which must include English, maths and three other EBacc disciplines (two sciences, a foreign language and history or geography). 

By any measure, these are dramatic and ambitious reforms. But the programme of change is so different from Gove's original blueprint that one cannot consider it as anything but a defeat for the Education Secretary. He originally wanted to replace GCSEs with a new two-tier exam (modelled on O-levels and CSEs) only to be foiled by the Lib Dems. After this retreat, the compromise solution of EBCs was announced; all pupils would, contrary to Gove's initial wishes, sit the same exams. Now this too has been killed at birth. 

Gove, who arrogantly lectured the education establishment for months on the need to scrap GCSEs, has been taught a lesson in the perils of hasty reform. Having failed to do his homework, the Education Secretary has flunked the exam. 

Education Secretary Michael Gove will announce today in the House of Commons that GCSEs will be not be scrapped. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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