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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser