Michael Gove’s exam fetish, Hong Kong mystery and Tim Yeo’s Nobu lunch

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Apart from changing eight grades denoted by letters (A*-G) to eight grades denoted by numbers (strangely reversed so that 8 is highest, 1 lowest), the point of Michael Gove’s new GCSEs is to abolish coursework assessment and restore end-of-course, three-hour written exams to their former glory. Popular opinion, presumably shared by Gove, is that this will make exam results fairer and more reliable.

Popular opinion is wrong. Because conventional exams are taken on a single day and are limited to a small number of items, they are a poor measure of any individual’s performance. Different items taken on a different day are likely to produce a different result. Researchers estimate that one child in three gets the wrong grade. Assessment throughout the course, covering a wider range over a longer period, has a better chance of giving an accurate picture.

It’s true that coursework assessment also has shortcomings because thousands of teachers in different schools award the marks. But it is now called “controlled assess ment”, and exam boards are more rigorous about how teachers carry out testing and marking. Besides, old-fashioned exams are also marked by numerous different hands and the role of subjective judgement will rise with the introduction, at Gove’s command, of more extended-essay questions.

It is precisely because there is no single reliable method of assessment that Gove’s predecessors opted for a mixture: coursework, projects, old-style exams and (albeit rarely) multiple-choice tests. Not for the first time, Gove prefers rigidity and dogma to flexibility and pragmatism. That, I suppose, is why he is so popular with Tory backbenchers.

Fear itself

Talking some years ago about Britain’s difficulties with tracking illegal immigrants, an American Democrat, who held high positions under Bill Clinton, expressed lofty incredulity that “your government doesn’t know how many people are in your country”. I express ed incredulity that the land of the free – which itself doesn’t know whether its illegal immigrants total 11 million or 20 million – should expect governments to have a precise headcount. But the US political class, so sharply divided on everything else, is almost united on the need for federal agencies to collect unlimited data. Despite outrage among civil liberties groups at the snooping revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, Demo crats and Republicans alike have no misgivings about the surveillance state.

I suspect this insouciance is attributable to the American electoral system. Since vital elections occur every two years, politicians live in fear of terrorist attacks for which they may be blamed. Any suggestion that they denied security agencies the means to apprehend suspects would lose them far more votes than any concerns about loss of civil liberties.

Hong Kong phooey

Hong Kong is not an obvious haven for asylum-seekers. So why did Snowden choose it? I called a barrister friend in Hong Kong who drew my attention to its 1998 extradition agreement with the US. It lists 36 offences for which “fugitive offenders” may be surrendered but, as my friend points out, there is no mention of national security or espionage. In his opinion, “Hong Kong is the worst place in the world to flee to if you’ve committed a criminal offence,” but Snowden hasn’t committed one as defined by the agreement. “He’s certainly safer here than he would be in England,” m’learned friend (who is British born and bred) added. And if the US were tempted to use its tried and trusted technique of extraordinary rendition to get its man, Beijing might have a thing or two to say about it. What a strange world we live in, when a man is safer in what, after all, is now part of communist China than he would be in London.

Humble pie

What is most alarming about MPs and peers who allegedly express willingness to accept money from lobbyists is that so many of our legislators appear to be stupid. The latest example, Tim Yeo, the chairman of the Commons energy and climate change committee, was approached by undercover reporters purporting to represent a solar energy company. Such stings are not exactly unprecedented. Did it not occur to Yeo to check their cre dentials before joining them for lunch at Nobu in Mayfair, London? Was there perhaps a company website? Or a record at Com panies House? Could Yeo not have made inquiries among friends and contacts in the energy world?

Politicians are notoriously eager for free lunches but I don’t think I have ever accepted a meal without first researching the person who’s buying it. If MPs are too gullible to protect their own interests, how can they be expected, in this wicked world, to protect ours?

Give them an inch

Speaking to the Colchester branch of the Fabian Society, I remarked that, as a journalist, I wasn’t much good at making policies. An audience member disagreed. He was so impressed with Guardian columnists, he said, that he could think of at least six who should be on the opposition front bench. Would the country be better run, I later wondered, if government alternated between competing teams of Guardian and Telegraph commentators? Discuss.

Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.