A-level results day will be a much less joyous affair if Gove gets his way

The Education Secretary's plan to abolish AS-levels will stifle the ambitions of students from the poorest backgrounds.

All over the country today, nerve-filled teenagers have been receiving their A-level exam results, pressing a button or opening an envelope to reveal a pathway to their future. A few letters on a piece of paper will either have caused abundant joy, nonchalant satisfaction, or gut-wrenching despair, in most cases, one hopes, the first two. Young people do not need their dreams dampened at the age of 17 or 18. As Owen Jones reminded us this morning, our austerity society has plenty of that in store for them. Instead, we need them to believe they can fulfil greatness.

How else will we confront the challenge of economic stagnation? If we dampen the hopes of young people so early then we dampen their enthusiasm to innovate, to attack the deficiencies of the status-quo and to ultimately improve our society. We need bright, pioneering individuals who are able to reform an economy with grave structural problems.

And yet this could be one of the last year groups where joy will be the overriding emotion across the nation. Indeed, I am sure that Michael Gove will not privately toast all those who have seen their ambitions fulfilled but will lift his glass with pride at the fact that the number of A* and A grades fell for the second year in a row.

From 2015, the Education Secretary intends to implement his master plan, a plan which will see these top grades drop even further. A-levels and AS-levels will be separated, meaning that A-level exams will be sat at the end of two years, with limited resits, establishing an unforgiving system more akin to Gove’s childhood experiences. As was aptly pointed out by shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg earlier this week, without the boost of AS-levels, students from the poorest backgrounds could be restricted from applying to elite universities. Furthermore, for a generation who have grown up seeing brothers, sisters and friends attain the highest grades, Gove’s barriers will simply act as obstructions to ambition. When pupils realise that they need to put in far more work than their elder peers to achieve high grades, their desire to put in the hard yards risks being constrained. Ultimately, this acts in the interests of more privileged pupils, who often have greater support systems both at school and at home to assist their efforts.

It is undeniable that our education system must reward pupils fairly, striking a balance between allowing pupils to achieve the highest grades and not flooding the system with AAA students. But the overriding story of Gove’s reforms will not be academic rigour and creating an aspiration nation. It will be of pupils stifled by an unrewarding education system, one which will discourage their ambition and dampen their dreams.

So, A-level leavers, as you sit down tonight, before partying the night away with the help of Jagermeister or some other putrid, liver-destroying drink, feel a tinge of sympathy for future generations and how they will not be quite as lucky as you.

Sam Bright is editor of the political website Backbench

Education Secretary Michael Gove leaves 10 Downing Street on November 21, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sam Bright is editor of the political website Backbench

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.