Exclusive: Gove wasted £42,000 on abandoned EBC exams

In addition to "administration and staff costs", the Department for Education spent thousands of pounds on developing the GCSE replacement.

There was much embarrassment for Michael Gove last month when the cabinet's golden boy announced that he would not, after all, be replacing GCSEs with a new English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC). But how much did the exams-that-never-were cost the taxpayer? Gove refused to say when asked by Labour MP Steve Rose on 7 February, so the NS put in a freedom of information request to the Department For Education. 

I asked "how much the department spent on developing and consulting on plans to have a single exam board for each academic subject at GCSE level and on introducing English Baccalaureate Certificates in English, maths, science, history, geography and foreign languages."

The department has now replied, stating that it "holds some but not all of information which you have requested". The consultation on the new exams and wider work on the development of the EBC "were carried out as part of normal administration and staff costs". The department, I was told, "does not hold information on the cost of these activities as it is not collated on a central basis."

However, the DfE has disclosed those costs that fell outside of the normal administration budget. And here they are:

Economic research on qualification market reform: £40,585.20

A patent on the trademark English Baccalaureate Certificates: £270

Subject and assessment expertise to provide advice on English Baccalaureate Certificate subject content requirements and assessment principles: £960

Total: £41,815

By the profligate standards of Whitehall, the bill might not appear all that significant but remember that it excludes "administrative and staff costs".

David Cameron has promised that his government will spend "every penny wisely". On this occasion, can one say that of his Education Secretary?

Update: The Department for Education have responded to the story. A spokesperson said:

"The vast majority of this money was spent on economic research on qualification market reform which will be vital in informing our ongoing work to reform GCSEs.

"The new GCSEs will be robust, relevant and rigorous exams that match the best in the world and prepare young people for further study and work. They will be far more demanding, and will be highly respected exams in which pupils, universities and employers, can have faith."

Education Secretary Michael Gove speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.