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.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR