Few four letter words are as fatal for the Tory brand as “Posh” “Toff” and “Pleb”. The government’s new Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell has ignited a blue touch paper whose trail ignites the idea that the Patrician Tory thinks he is born to rule.
Other four letter words could also blow up in their face but, more importantly do serious damage to ordinary people at the same time, I am thinking, in particular of the galaxy of Gove, GSCE and (e)Bacc. Sorry I cheated on the last one.
The former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton often used to say that two months is one percent of a child’s life. We don’t get a second chance to make a first impression on our young people. We know that much of a person’s abilities and, to a large degree, their fate in terms of relative prosperity are pretty much determined by the age of three. That is why the last Labour Government rightly put such emphasis on early intervention and a chain of Sure Start centres that could help overcome the limiting impact of child poverty and lack of stimulus.
We rightly warn and agitate about losing a decade of economic and social progress thanks to a needlessly aggressive austerity programme that is failing even within its own terms.
I think we should pull no punches about the lost generation. We already have 1.25 million young people between 16-25 who are not in education, employment or training NEETs ( a term I deplore). Yet Michael Gove’s answer to this is to take a trip down the nostalgia road to the 1960s where the education and exam system rigorously separated academic from non-academic achievers. A system that saw two or three children going on into second class schooling for every one that went to a Grammar school.
The new system replaces GCSEs with English Baccalaureate certificates (Ebaccs) and scraps modules and the more general use of coursework assessment in favour of a one shot exam.
It is essential that the education system stretches students but to rely on a system that makes such potentially definitive judgements in just three hours exacerbates the disadvantages of poorer or less academic pupils. It was an antiquated system a generation ago and is even more so now. It wasn’t right in the latter part of the 20th century and it is just downright wrong for the second decade of the 21st.
I agree that standards should be rigorous but, as one who was long involved in education in Gateshead, I know all too well that this can introduce artificial glass ceilings that bar progression, snuff out talent and condemn the young to a life which doesn’t fulfil their potential.
We need to decide collectively what the purpose of our schools, further education colleges and exams system should be.
Are they simply gateways to higher education or a pathway to the whole range of routes to adulthood, life and employment?
The new system, which applies to just over 10% of students, is due to start in September 2015, which is just after the planned date of the general election and there is to be a consultation in the meantime.
This provides an opportunity for the labour movement, in alliance with all those concerned about how schools can lift standards, to work up alternative proposals.
I hope that the debate examines the review of 14-19 qualifications presented by Mike Tomlinson, the former Chief Inspector at OfSTED in the noughties. The Labour Government made great progress in closing the gap between the performance of poorer and richer children but didn’t fully act on Tomlinson’s proposals.
Tomlinson backed a comprehensive 14-19 system of four diplomas – entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced. They included project work, ‘open’ and ‘specialist’ tracks, a mixture of academic and vocational learning and a ‘climbing frame’ rather than what he called a ‘hurdle race’ form of assessment. It sought to integrate rather than separate, vocational and academic education.
This is an important piece of work which is still fresh enough to be a part of our own search for an alternative to Gove and which can spearhead plans to boost educational attainment. Labour should be the champion of education as liberation and a major driver of economic growth, we do not constantly need to be about the task of reinventing the wheel, while Michael Gove goes about his divisive work that will fail many students with his retrograde counter-reforms. Young people, their parents and the bulk of the education world are looking to us to provide an alternative they can swear by.
Ian Mearns is the Labour MP for Gateshead