Is Mr Gove really caving -- or is he fighting to win?
Published in: Daily Mail
The fears I expressed in my Mail column two days ago appear to be proving justified. Or are they? Reports in today’s press suggest that the embattled education Secretary Michael Gove is being forced to water down his bold proposal to scrap the one-size-fits-all GCSE exam at 16+ and revert instead to the previous structure of an academically demanding exam and a separate, more vocationally-oriented one for less academic pupils.
The leaked proposal created an all-too predictable furore among educationists, Labour and LibDem politicians, with the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg leading the defence of the indefensible by stating that he would never agree to a two-tier qualification.
It is not clear from today’s stories quite what Mr Gove is now saying he will do. Pressed on whether he was bringing back the old less academic CSE exam, he said there would be no’ step back’ and ‘had ruled out as clearly as I possibly can any two-tier system.’ Following indications at the weekend that he was prepared to reach a compromise with the LibDems, such comments have given rise to today’s reports that he was performing a U-turn.
But he also said there was no coalition rift – because every child would have the chance to sit the more rigorous qualification. Such weasel words offer hope that all is not lost. And indeed in his passionate speech yesterday, he made it crystal clear that in his view it was the current education system which entrenched inequality and disadvantage, and it was the GCSE exam itself which was a two-tier qualification.
But as I also said earlier this week, all depends on whether the Education Secretary has the Prime Minister’s unambiguous backing. So far this has not been forthcoming, in public at least. Instead David Cameron has given the impression that the most important thing right now is not to reverse the education disaster which is threatening Britain’s very future but to keep Nick Clegg in the Coalition.
As so often, one wonders yet again just why Mr Cameron is so terrified of Mr Clegg. The LibDems, after all, have nowhere politically to go, having destroyed their support amongst the public. Why the Prime Minister doesn’t just face them down remains one of the puzzles of the age.
Nevertheless, the fact is that over this issue on which Mr Gove has so boldly gone to the barricades there can be no compromise. For the reasons I set out here, his proposals get to the belly of the under-performing education beast. Its key characteristic is the obsession with equality of outcomes, the ‘all must have prizes’ mentality which made the GCSE into the exam that no child could fail. The GCSE thus became the cause and result -- and also the sad emblem -- of Britain’s educational meltdown.
But the only ‘compromise’ Mr Clegg will accept is the retention of some kind of one-size-fits-all exam. That, however, inescapably means perpetuating a meaningless qualification, the betrayal of countless more children’s life chances and the inexorable progression of national educational decline.
Let’s hope that Mr Gove’s elliptical words mean he still fights to win.