"Ed used to hang with the geek crowd." Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

It’s GCSE results day, but what did our party leaders get in their school exams?

As hundreds of thousands of teenagers will receive their GCSE results today, we look back to see what our party leaders achieved at school.

The former Conservative Prime Minister John Major famously left his comprehensive school, Rutlish, in London with three O-Levels: history, English language and English literature.

In November last year, he lamented the “shocking” domination in Britain of those who were educated at public schools.

“In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class.

“To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking.”

Although Major did actually achieve three further O-Levels (in maths, economics, and, rather bafflingly, the British Constitution) after leaving school, it is still unusual for a political leader to have a poor academic record. Let’s look at how our current party leaders fared at school:

 

David Cameron

We don’t know exactly what marks the PM received in his O-Levels, but we do know the Eton-educated Cameron is a chillaxer by some accounts. Although he did sit 12 O-Levels – quite a high number even by today’s standards – he described his results as “not very good”. And although he passed them all, his pre-sixth form academic record has been described as “average”.

His biographers Francis Elliott and James Hanning quote a fellow Etonian, recalling: “We were convinced there would never be an Etonian prime minister again. I certainly didn’t think Dave would have a go at it. His only acting roles at school were as a serving-man and as a girl. He was never outrageously extrovert – just quietly popular.”

One of his teachers, John Clark, is also quoted: “He didn’t draw attention to himself. He wasn’t effusive or loud… [he was] very much a late developer academically”.

However, things looked up when he sat his A-Levels, achieving three As at A-level, in history, history of art and economics with politics. Shame the UK’s triple A credit rating slipped for the first time since the Seventies under his leadership…

 

Ed Miliband

According to a quick sweep through Google, the Labour leader’s O-Levels aren’t common knowledge, though he did pass them. However, he scooped four pretty good A-Levels – AABB in maths, English, further maths and physics. He beat his brother David, who got BBBD in his A-Levels.

Both Milibands attended Haverstock School in north London, a state school that has been labelled by the Mail as the “Eton for lefties”:

“… Mr Miliband is hardly a typical comprehensive pupil; and Haverstock, at the time, was not exactly a typical comprehensive school.

“He is a product of the Labour aristocracy. His old school has been mischievously dubbed ‘Labour’s Eton’ – a finishing school for future Labour politicians.

“Apart from Ed’s elder brother, David, alumni include the former New Labour MP Oona King, Tom Bentley (a special adviser to Australia’s Labour prime minister Julia Gillard) and the author Zoe Heller (who described her mother as a glamorous Labour activist with ‘Stalinist inclinations’.)

“Nor was Haverstock Hill in the middle of a sink estate. Its catchment area included the middle-class Hampstead intelligentsia.”

However, the Observer journalist Andrew Anthony, who attended the school, wrote of it in 2012:

“It amuses me now to see the place snipingly referred to as "Labour's Eton". For although it's true that in the 70s the school contained a significant minority of children from the Hampstead and Primrose Hill intelligentsia, violence was rife in and out of the classroom, police were regularly called to the school gates to quell mass fights, and the ethos was embarrassingly unacademic.”

In Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre’s biography of Ed, they quote the head of English at Haverstock, Nikki Haydon, who recalls a large and distinct “middle-class contingency” in the school. They also quote a contemporary of the Labour leader during his schooldays:

“Ed used to hang around with the geek crowd.”

 

Nick Clegg

The wisecrack goesNick Clegg failed his biology A-Level – he couldn’t find a backbone.

This cannot be confirmed.

The journalist Harry Mount, who was at school with the Lib Dem leader, wrote this about how he was as a student:

“Nick Clegg wasn’t one of the more intelligent boys when he was at Westminster School from 1980 to 1985.

“The clever pupils at Westminster — one of the best, and most expensive, schools in the country, costing £32,490 a year — were ‘accelerated’. That meant they did O-levels after two, as opposed to three, years.

“Clegg, one of the less bright sparks, was selected for the three-year option. Still, that didn’t stop him making it into Robinson College, Cambridge, in 1986”.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.