Thoughts on… Gove and education

Michael Gove this week announced the biggest shake-up of secondary education in a generation. Should his policies ultimately succeed then GCSE’s will be consigned to the bin, being replaced instead by a revamped system of ‘O’ Levels and CSE’s. 

The way he announced it; allowing the reforms to be leaked to a very sympathetic Daily Mail before they had been discussed at cabinet, let alone parliament, is instructive in itself. It put Labour on the back foot, entrenching them into an ‘old-Labour’ ideological position whilst simultaneously emboldening parliamentary Conservatives and forcing Cameron to back reforms that are possibly too ‘old-Tory’ even for him. The Lib-Dems meanwhile continue to be confused – the leadership know the grassroots oppose any move towards a two-tier examination system, but understand that for the sake of the coalition and their immediate political future they cannot oppose it too much. In all the hype it is easy for Labour types like myself to disregard Gove and his policies as nothing more than nostalgic elitism but that would miss the point, and leave generations of kids worse off. 

Labour’s track record in government was good but it was also unfinished, particularly when it came to secondary education. True, Academies had just started to take-off, breathing life into some of the country’s worst schools, but still too many talented pupils were able to coast, whilst those at the bottom were frequently not entered for traditional GCSEs for fear of the detrimental impact they may have on league tables. Meanwhile the competition between exam boards led to corruption and the perverse situation where those offering the easiest papers were at a commercial advantage. Finally, GCSEs have lost the confidence of many employers. None of this is to blame teachers or pupils, who I honestly believe work harder now than ever to attain the best possible grades. But to continue with a system that has so clearly had its time fails them perhaps more than anyone. 

I actually agree with Gove on a couple of things – we should end intra-subject competition between different exam boards and papers should regularly be independently verified to ensure standards year-on-year remain consistently high.It is also fair to argue that too many pupils are gaining top-grades – that is not necessarily an admission they are easier than in previous generations, more that teaching has become more sophisticated and pupils are working harder, nonetheless any future exam system needs to be able to push the most able as much as it does the least. That said, a two-tier examination system that effectively limits a child’s ambition at the age of 13 or 14 is, to borrow a phrase from the PM, morally repugnant. 

Instead, I believe we need to look across the continent for inspiration, delivering more broad-based education for longer with final assessments in english, maths, the sciences, arts, humanities and a language. The resultant qualification being similar to a ‘junior’ baccalaureate. From here students have a choice to carry on and study for a full ‘baccalaureate’ (or whatever we might choose to call our version) or to complete a vocational equivalent. Either way, all 16-18 year olds would stay in either full-time education or training. 

Sadly, because of the nature of Gove’s leak and the resultant political positioning it is unlikely we will see the wider public debate and resultant policy in 11-18 education that is so desperately needed. Instead we are likely to see another generation unable to reach its full potential. 







A dire warning for School leavers – there are no jobs, no training and no university places left.

Well £6.2billion down – only £887bn to go. But what do the coalition decisions to date really tell us about the direction of this government?

Well first, they are serious about protecting and enhancing civil-liberties – which is something we can all cheer about. Secondly, the other thing that is keeping Lib-Dems happy (or at least quiet) right now, there is to be significant constitutional reforms – with a likely elected second chamber and a referendum on AV for the commons. So far, so good.

But listening to George Osborne and David Laws yesterday my thoughts turned to another area – that of the future of our current crop of school-leavers.  Already worried about the unenviable choice between going to University and facing a mountain of debt on graduation, or entering a jobs market where 1 in 6 of their peers cannot find work, yesterdays announcements should come as a dire warning that things are going to get a lot worse.

We already know, or at least fear, that the Lib-Dems are likely to drop their long-standing opposition to tuition fees – preferring to preach from the safety of the fence, rather than risk undermining the coalition. Early indications suggest that not only are differential fees here to stay they are likely to face sustained increases, particularly if you fancy studying on a popular course at a decent university. However, cuts to the Education, Business and Work and Pensions budgets now mean that the next generation of workers (the ones that will be looking after us in our old-age) are now hit with substantial cuts in the following areas:

The training and development agency for schools – saving achieved by cutting the scheme to attract the brightest and best graduates into teaching.

Efficiencies in the university budgets – actually this is just a nice way of saying that 10,000 university places will be cut in September.

Higher Education Funding Council for England – inevitably leading to a drop in the grants given to our Universities – so, even if you do manage to get a place at University, chances are that less is going to be spent on you.

– Cuts in reforming vocational qualifications – a long-overdue piece of work looking at how best to deliver high-quality vocational training at a level perceived to be equivalent to that of a degree.

– The Future Jobs Fund – cuts of over £1/4 billion in a scheme which finds work for unemployed 18-24year olds.

In all over £500million of the proposed £6billion directly impacts on programmes that help to educate, train or employ young people. This isn’t the end however – both Osborne and Laws made it clear that yesterday’s announcements should be seen as a statement of intent rather than a one-off cut. It can be easy to pull funding from schemes and programmes that many people have not heard of, but we should be aware that there is nearly always a consequence to it. Taking money away from educating, training and employing young people now does not just impact in the immediate term but risks leaving us with a lost-generation similar to the legacy left by the Thatcher and Major years.

It is true that there is a need for a grown-up debate around what we  as a society are willing to pay for, and how much we are willing to pay in tax to get it – but in the absence of that, I like to finish with just one thought – yesterday, at the same time as cutting the funding mentioned above the government made a guarantee that no-savings would be sought in the MoD budget this financial year – when did the cost of war become of greater value than that of educating and employing our children?