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Chris McGovern: Gove was an admirable minister. But he still proved easy meat for the Blob


Paul Goodman, executive editor of the “conservativehome” website, has been praising Michael Gove’s exam reforms in a list of Reasons to be a Tory. Should we accept Paul’s conclusion that Gove is to be lauded for doing “much to prevent a generation of pupils from being fleeced by the exam system” and that he has given youngsters “qualifications that hold real value”?

It was on Gove’s ‘watch’ that examination grade inflation peaked and even the latest GCSE results (Aug 2014) show that across all subjects there was a 0.7 per cent increase at the A* to C grades sought by employers and universities.  They were up 4.8 per cent in mathematics but down 1.9 per cent in English.  The overall pass rate (A* to G) fell marginally to what still remains the staggeringly high figure of 98.5 per cent.

To suggest that a public examination ‘passed’ by 985 candidates out of every 1000 constitute the strengthening of a qualification, as Paul Goodman claims, is delusional.The OECD paints a different picture. By the age of 15, our youngsters are running up to three years behind the best education systems of the Asia Pacific.

To be fair to Michael Gove, he had wanted to scrap the GCSE altogether and restore a ‘proper’ academic examination such as the GCE O-Level, which is sat by our educational ‘betters’ in Singapore.

Self-delusion is equally present at A-Level amongst Gove supporters. In a comment piece for The Daily Telegraph (August 2014), headed “Exams are tougher, and that’s good…”, Richard Cairns of Brighton College hailed a fall in the pass rate for the first time in 32 years as evidence of tougher exams. He did not mention that the A-Level pass rate decline was an insignificant tenth of one per cent, whereas the percentage of top grades increased by six times that amount. Back in 1982 the pass rate was 62 per cent. It is, now, 98 per cent!

According to Paul Goodman’s assessment, so successful was Michael Gove’s reform of the examination system that: When the historians look back on the Coalition, they may well judge that of the Ministers who helped to spread opportunity, raise life chances and made a difference, Gove was top of the class.”

This is a bold assertion, indeed! Historians are, generally, more cautious about rushing to conclusions.

Nevertheless, I rather admire Michael Gove. The courage and honesty he displayed as Education Secretary far exceeded that shown by his predecessors. However, I doubt that history will be as kind to him as Paul Goodman suggests. At times, his toughness was balanced by remarkable naivety about ‘the Blob’, the educational establishment that confronted him. There are ways of beating ‘the Blob’ but Michael never took the trouble to find them. Instead, he made himself so toxic that he had to be ditched.

Only time will tell if public exams will, indeed, provide the rigour Gove promised. His office once dismissed as someone “having a laugh”, suggestions that Russell Brand, Dizee Rascal, the Secret Footballer and tweets by Caitlin Moran would be included on the new syllabus for A-Level English. The last laugh, of course, has been on Gove. Not only are they on the syllabus but Blackadder has been added, too.

The proof of the GCSE and A-Level pudding will always be in the eating. Sadly, few of Michael Gove’s advisors and supporters ever had much of a clue as to the thousand and one ways in which his reforms can be readily subverted.

A telling insight into the likely long-term impact of some of Gove key reforms can be seen in this reaction from one of his Labour Party opponents. It relates to his ‘climbdown’ on the new National Curriculum for History:

 “It would seem history teachers have won and Gove has lost. Some might say he has more than lost: he has been humiliated, just punishment for wasting all our time.” John Blake, history teacher and co-editor of “Labour Teachers” (writing in The Daily Telegraph, 12th July 2013).

Michael Gove, himself, is more honest than some of his current hagiographers. Writing in The Spectator (April 4th 2015), he conceded:

 “I am selfish, lazy, greedy, hypocritical, confused, self-deceiving, impatient and weak. And that’s just on a good day.”

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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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