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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.