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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.