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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All doctors kill people – and the threat of prosecution is bad for everyone

We must recognise the reality of medical practice: just because a doctor makes a mistake, that doesn’t mean they’ve all broken the law. 

On 15 November the Court of Appeal quashed the 2013 conviction for gross negligence manslaughter (GNM) of a senior consultant surgeon in London, David Sellu. Sellu, who had completed his prison term by the time the appeal was heard, will never get back the 15 months of his life that he spent in jail. Nor will the personal and family trauma, or the damage to his reputation and livelihood, ever properly heal. After decades of exemplary practice – in the course of the investigation numerous colleagues testified to his unflappable expertise – Sellu has said that he has lost the heart ever to operate again.

All doctors kill people. Say we make 40 important decisions about patients in a working day: that’s roughly 10,000 per annum. No one is perfect, and medical dilemmas are frequently complex, but even if we are proved right 99 per cent of the time, that still leaves 100 choices every year where, with the benefit of hindsight, we were wrong.

Suppose 99 per cent of those have no negative consequences. That’s still one disaster every 12 months. And even if most of those don’t result in a fatal outcome, over the course of a career a few patients are – very regrettably – going to die as a result of our practice. Almost invariably, these fatalities occur under the care of highly skilled and experienced professionals, working in good faith to the very best of their abilities.

If one of these cases should come before a crown court, the jury needs meticulous direction from the trial judge on the legal threshold for a criminal act: in essence, if a doctor was clearly aware of, and recklessly indifferent to, the risk of death. Sellu’s conviction was quashed because the appeal court found that the judge in his trial had singularly failed to give the jury these directions. The judiciary make mistakes, too.

Prosecutions of health-care professionals for alleged GNM are increasing markedly. The Royal College of Surgeons of England identified ten cases in 2015 alone. This must reflect social trends – the so-called “blame culture”, in which we have come to believe that when a tragedy occurs, someone must be held responsible. In every one of these cases, of course, an individual’s life has been lost and a family left distraught; but there is a deepening sense in which society at large, and the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), in particular, appear to be disconnected from the realities of medical practice.

Malpractice investigation and prosecution are horrendous ordeals for any individual. The cumulative impact on the wider health-care environment is equally serious. In a recent survey of doctors, 85 per cent of respondents admitted that they were less likely to be candid about mistakes, given the increasing involvement of the criminal law.

This is worrying, because the best way to avoid errors in future is by open discussion with the aim of learning from what has gone wrong. And all too often, severely adverse events point less to deficiencies on the part of individuals, and more to problems with systems. At Sellu’s hospital, emergency anaesthetic cover had to be arranged ad hoc, and this contributed to delays in potentially life-saving surgery. The tragic death of his patient highlighted this; management reacted by putting a formal rota system in place.

Doctors have long accepted the burden of civil litigation, and so insure themselves to cover claims for compensation. We are regulated by the General Medical Council, which has powers to protect patients from substandard practice, including striking off poorly performing doctors. The criminal law should remain an exceptional recourse.

We urgently need a thorough review of the legal grounds for a charge of GNM, with unambiguous directions to the police, CPS and judges, before the spectre of imprisonment becomes entrenched for those whose only concern is to provide good care for their patients. As Ken Woodburn, a consultant vascular surgeon in Cornwall who was accused and acquitted of GNM in 2001, has said: “You’re only ever one error away from a manslaughter prosecution.”

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage