Marmite: The Education Secretar

GCSE results have fallen for the first time since 1986. But is Michael Gove’s assault on the British education system doing more harm than good?

Another reshuffle, another indication of Michael Gove’s unassailable popularity among Conservatives in the UK. Since what was arguably the advent of modern British education in the 1960s, with the introduction of Comprehensive schooling and the abolition of so-called ‘tiered education’, what you might call the ‘education question’ has often been forced back to the forefront of British politics. Both parties of Government have played their part in the liberalisation – some would say dilution – of education.

Perhaps somewhat hard to believe if you look at political trends (and I don’t mean the ones on Twitter), it was the Thatcher Government that introduced the National Curriculum which dictated to state schools what was to be taught, thus increasing Government intervention in education. It also introduced another supposed leveller; the General Certificate of Secondary Education which ended the previously tiered examination system of O-Levels for the brighter kids, and CSEs for those less brighter. The fact that my Father sat the former and my Mother the latter but my friends and I all sat the same examinations is illustration enough of the egalitarian argument for GCSEs.

This year GCSE results have dropped for the first time since the qualification was introduced 26 years ago. Teachers from schools across the country have demanded that the English GCSEs they feel have been harshly graded, causing pupils to lose out on places to study A-Levels, Apprenticeships and work opportunities, be sent back and re-graded. Michael Gove may soon be playing John the Baptist to the Teachers’ Unions’ Salome. But this seems unlikely. So what is the future for British state education, and is it moving in the right direction?

The objective of education is surely to educate; to give children the knowledge deemed a requirement by the age of sixteen. But education is also a question of class: how to elevate the kids who aren’t doing so well? How to ensure that nobody gets left behind, but also to nurture the potential of children who could be really bright? The British Grammar Schools: once an institution that led to a generation of Prime Ministers who, for the first time in British political history, were not from aristocratic backgrounds – though they were by no means underprivileged – have been all but swept away. Academies: the brainchild of Tony Blair and Lord Adonis, were sought as the answer to address underperforming schools, but success seemed mixed, and Government interference trying to paint success over the cracks was rife.

Michael Gove, like all Conservatives, is not a man who believes that a section of society should be left behind, but like all Conservatives he succeeds against all odds in making it a by-product of policies meant to make the British Education System more rigorous and more successful. He built on the idea of Academies when he sought to remove state intervention even further, especially with the creation of Free Schools. He sought to improve the standard of state education by focusing on ‘academic’ subjects, rejecting vocational options; the problem thereby being that under the current system pupils favouring more vocational subjects risked being blotted out of the system altogether. His move to introduce the English Baccalaureate seemed a crude attempt to exclude qualifications such as Film Studies and Business Studies, by suggesting that students who were successful in life would have Maths, English, Science, one of the Humanities and a language.

Are echoes of the harmful schooling system of novels like ‘David Copperfield’ creeping back into British education?

Though exam boards insist they were not pressurised to grade more harshly this year in light of Gove’s recommendations, the notion that it was probably at the back of their minds is hard to refute. The question as to whether exams are getting easier- and I sat them a few years back now- is one that can never really be answered, mainly because grading is, and always will be, an arbitrary thing. No amount of Government meddling, or any attempt to remove political influence, can make the mark anything more than one person’s decision.

Gove remains the undisputed face of Conservative educational policy. But you might wonder, in the fifty or so years since education started on the path to egalitarianism, whether he really gets what it is about. It is not that the idea of educational levelling means watering down the system to the point where nobody can fail – something which the last Labour Government came perilously close to. It is rather that everyone deserves the same crack at the whip as everybody else, and the same opportunity  at getting on in life.

It is that which the Education Secretary should take from the long struggle that has led us up to this point; and he needs to remember that a D instead of a C might look on paper like a just reflection of rising educational standards, but all it is in this instance is a moving of the boundaries; a change from an equal opportunity to dangerous meddling in the lives of young people, which must stop if the lives of this year’s school leavers are to be safeguarded from jeopardy.


Stuart McMillan


Image of Michael Gove, copyright Paul Clarke

‘David Copperfield’ copyright Bradbury and Evans