Coalition ministers and commentators like to study Michael Gove as an example of a successful reforming politician. The Education Secretary is most definitely man not mouse, taking on some of the most vehement vested interests in our public services, and even appearing to enjoy himself while he does it. But today’s change of tack on GCSE reform shows that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Actually, as the FT’s Chris Cook so eloquently explained on the Today programme, it don’t matter whether the reformed exams are called Gove-levels, EBCs, or plain old GCSEs: what is clearly most important is that the reforms call time on the current system of exam boards competing in part on whose papers are more ‘accessible’ (or easy to pass) and teachers coming under pressure not only to get their pupils over that crucial D/C grade boundary but also to mark up their coursework because everyone else does it. The reforms will still toughen up the exams with an end to the modular structure and open-ended questions.
One problem was that using a single exam board for each subject would have fallen foul of EU procurement rules. There was always something a trifle un-Conservative about this idea, which was reducing the amount of competition in the sector rather than increasing it. It also meant that teachers would have had a great deal less choice when it came to which era of history, for example, they could teach their pupils. The plan is now for the exam regulator to have a tighter grip on the papers instead.
But the Lib Dems, who initially blocked the introduction of a two-tier O-level style system, appear to have got their way again. One told me last night when I asked if this was going down in their list of ‘Lib Dem wins’ that this was a ‘win for good sense’. Nick Clegg will likely be less tactful when he addresses his party’s spring conference in a month’s time.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.