Secrecy and leaks are shameful to DfE

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The leaks over Michael Gove's O level plans are offensive and insulting, says SecEd editor Pete Henshaw

The Department for Education this week sparked the debate that one suspects Michael Gove has been itching to have – should we scrap our system of GCSEs and return to something like the O levels and CSEs of the past?

The arrogance of our secretary of state is astounding. The fact that his Liberal Democrat partners in the Cabinet and even the Liberal Democrat ministers and junior ministers in his own department knew nothing about his scheme shows to what lengths his inner circle must have gone to hide the plan. 

It is offensive that Mr Gove seems to have forgotten the fact that he is working in a coalition. He has no mandate to enforce Conservative policies upon the nation without agreement from his Liberal Democrat partners. We did not vote for a Tory government.

A cynic would say that this “leak” was deliberately designed to publish the Conservatives’ plans while avoiding difficult discussion across the Cabinet table. Happily this week, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg signalled that he would be quick to block the proposals if his party finds them lacking. Let’s hope he is true to his word.

The “leaked” plans, of course, outline proposals to axe GCSEs and replace them from as soon as September 2014 with new, “harder and more rigorous” qualifications similar to the O levels of old. There would then be “simpler” qualifications for less intellectual pupils, with cohorts being streamed at an early age into one route or the other. The Daily Mail, which splashed the leak, reported that the national curriculum could be abolished and that each subject’s exam would be set by one exam board alone.

Of course, it is quite right to subject our examinations system and qualifications to regular review and scrutiny.However, when called to the House of Commons to explain himself, Mr Gove was not having a debate, he has clearly made up his mind that GCSEs must go.

Also, Mr Gove spoke again of emulating countries across the world, but once again Mr Gove has ignored the fact that the best education systems across the world all place equity at their hearts. Educational success can only come from an equity of access. And this is where his apparent plans would fail. The O level system was not equitable and led to less academic students being branded as failures from an early age and being seen as second class citizens.

Mr Gove is doing nothing more than harking back to the golden days of his youth. It is a fact that these “golden days” were responsible for failing thousands and thousands of students and entrenching inequity in our schools and our society. These students often dropped out of education and left schools without basic skills. How will a return to this, two-tier, haves and have nots approach do anything to help us improve social mobility and aspiration? It won’t.

As one commentator said this week, making children choose whether they are academic or vocational will “force schools to put a limit on aspirations”.

GCSEs, while they may have their faults, have proved tremendously successful at reversing some of this inequity and should not be abandoned so easily. Let’s instead have a public debate on whether GCSEs need to be reformed (for example, the idea of having one exam board for one subject is worthy of debate), but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

And please: let’s have a professional, evidence-based debate, let’s stop creating policy based on the school days and upbringing of one man, and let’s encourage the Department for Education’s leader to conduct himself with a bit more decorum, rather than forging secret plans behind the backs of his coalition partners and relying on press leaks to lead public policy debate.

I would also add that at a time when thousands of children are reaching the climax of years of study and sitting their GCSEs, for our education minister to stand up in Parliament and tell them that their exams are dumbed down and effectively worthless is shameful and untrue.


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