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Chris McGovern: The day East Sussex became East Germany – when I joined Thatcher in predicting a GCSE fiasco


Back in 1986 Margaret Thatcher foresaw, in part, the likely collapse in educational standards that would be consequent upon the introduction of the new GCSE exam. Newly released documents from the National Archives, under the ‘30-Year Rule’, make clear her concern that the proposed all-ability exam would create a “can’t fail mentality” and “lead to lower standards”. How right she was!

Sadly, her former ‘mentor’ and, at that time, Education Secretary, Sir Keith Joseph was completely fooled by the educational establishment, the Blob, into believing that GCSE would be an improvement on the GCE O-Level exam, it replaced. Given the massive grade inflation and dumbing down that has followed, it now seems extraordinary that Joseph could have believed at the time that the new exam would “stretch the able more and stretch the average more.” He told Mrs Thatcher that she was “misleading herself “ about the new exam and that it would be “a key instrument for improving standards.” How wrong could he have been?

The teacher unions embraced the GCSE but at the time were, as so often, in dispute with the Government and taking industrial over pay and conditions. As part of this dispute they demanded more time to prepare for the introduction of the new exam. Mrs Thatcher was persuaded that any hesitation over introducing GCSE would, therefore, be regarded as a concession to the unions: “There seems little alternative but to acquiesce in Sir Keith’s view that GCSE must go ahead. To do otherwise in contradiction of his position would look like taking the side of the unions.” This was an error of judgement monumental in its consequences; the greatest victory ever for the Blob.

When ‘sample’ papers GCSE papers appeared in 1987 the extent to which Sir Keith  had been misled became apparent. As Head of History at Lewes Priory Comprehensive School in East Sussex I was appalled and so were two of my teaching colleagues. How could questions such as those asking candidates to explain why the Allies in 1944 kept the D-Day invasion plans secret from the Germans be regarded as “rigorous”? Was it a valid for an exam question to ask children to pretend they were terrorists and to justify mass murder?

Even Joseph seemed to panic when he realised the consequences of his stupidity in promoting the new exam. No longer Education Secretary, but a member of the House of Lords, he supported an amendment to the 1988 Education Bill that would have re-opened the possibility of some choice in the exam system alongside GCSE. Myself and a colleague from Lewes, supported by several peers, had drafted the amendment. Since the ‘old’ O-Level was, and is, available to overseas schools the amendment would, in effect, have also made the exam available in England and Wales. Our amendment was defeated, of course, but Joseph voted for it and he commented in the House that the reality of GCSE was a “straight abuse” of what he had intended.

The rest is history, of course, and there has been no happy ending. As former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has admitted, the introduction of GCSE was “a historic mistake”. Matters deteriorated further when a ‘dumbed down’ National Curriculum cemented it in place. During the 30 years that have passed since the original error, education systems around the world have been surging ahead of ours. Possibly, we will never recover the lost ground. We are, of necessity, becoming ever more reliant on educated and skilled immigrant labour.

As for the Lewes Two who sounded the alarm and ‘kicked the hornets’ nest’ back in the late 1980s, we were accused by school governors of “insubordination and mutiny”. The Chief Education Officer for East Sussex informed the local newspaper that he would understand if no school would employ us. Neither of us ever worked in a state school again. Within the teaching profession there was ‘covert’ but never ‘open’ support. In private, Mrs Thatcher was especially warm towards us.

But most people were too afraid to speak out. Even those articulate and well-known spokesmen on education we hear from so often these days, including esteemed head teachers, remained silent back in those ‘more difficult’ days, as ‘free speech’ was crushed and education took several steps backwards. It was left to Melanie Phillips, then a Guardian journalist, to point out that if what had been happening to the Lewes teachers had been happening in communist and totalitarian East Germany rather than in East Sussex, there would have been an outcry in our ‘so-called’ liberal press.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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