Go on Govey, you know you want to…

BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show always introduces Education Secretary Michael Gove via a reference to the evil dummy in a 1970s horror movie. The clear implication is that Mr Gove struggles to control his inner, and even more frenetically right-wing, self. His mask of reasonableness slips from time to time, and the truth comes tumbling out. An unfortunate (or, one might feel, extremely fortunate) leak has precipitated just such a revealing moment today, when the Education Secretary was obliged to ‘fess up to parliament that the evil dummy has been urging him to return to a 2-tier system of examinations for 16yr-olds such as pertained when I was at school. I and my supposedly intellectually superior fellows took O-levels, whilst our more run-of-the-mill comrades took CSEs.

Ironically, given Mr Gove’s sycophantic admiration for the erstwhile prime minister, it was Margaret Thatcher’s government that abolished the 2-tier system, and brought in the GCSEs that we know today. Apparently, says either Mr Gove himself or possibly his evil dummy agent provocateur, this has short-changed the clever children of today who are obliged to take ridiculously easy exams merely so that their more stupid colleagues should not be embarrassed. And so a system of hard, proper exams – doubtless including Latin and other improving subjects – should be reintroduced for the brainy, whilst easier qualifications – based around modules marked by their bleeding heart teachers who will be suitably lenient – should be continued for the, well, not so brainy and the downright thick. In this way we will please all the pupils all of the time.

It’s easy enough to present this unflattering gloss on Mr Gove’s statement to parliament today, and even easier for me since, as I mentioned above, I was one of those brainy kids who benefited from proper, hard exams, including Latin (and indeed ancient Greek I’ll have you know, but no-one seems that exercised by the poor relation of classical studies) and am thus equipped to write with impeccable spelling, masterful use of punctuation, and a working knowledge of apostrophes. Having scaled effortlessly the ladder of proper education, I now callously kick it away from my present day equivalents in the name of dinner-table leftyism.

In fact, the whole business of a 1-tier or 2-tier examination system is a red herring. It is merely a detail of the logistics of assessment when the real issue is to restore a proper understanding of what the education of young people is for. The ire of the Liberal Democrats is in part kindled by their distaste for “going back to the 1950s”. (The other part of what’s got them cross is of course the simple fact that no-one even had the decency to tell them that Mr Gove’s evil dummy was urging him to turn the exam clock back.) In truth, they should be wanting to turn the clock back an awful lot further. Public education since the 1870 Act has really been not about education at all, but about the preparation of the workforce. The exam system is not about children’s attainment, but about providing employers with the means to pick and choose who will make the most profitable workers.

But it doesn’t even do that. As an employer, interviewing for staff virtually non-stop for the last 35 years, I’ve never once found it either necessary or helpful to concern myself with those candidates’ exam results. And the irony of that is made the more delicious because for the last 50 years we’ve been trying to make our exams ever more tightly constructed around what we imagine employers want to know. In some highly technical fields, what people know and don’t know may still be the most important way of picking the right workers, but that is a tiny minority. What the vast majority of employers need to know is what kind of person is sitting opposite them in the interview room. And I can tell you that whether it’s O-levels, GCSEs, CSEs, vocational this, that or the others – they are all of them utterly useless in helping us to know that most important thing.

So go on Govey, you know you want to. Except you don’t. You don’t want to improve the true education of young people. You simply want to be able to classify the brainy, the not-so-brainy, and the stupid, and to be able to do that with the comfort of knowing that the yardstick is the same one that you were familiar with from your own school career. At root what you want to do, Govey, is to put everyone back into their proper place. And that’s got bugger-all to do with education.

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One thought on “Go on Govey, you know you want to…

  1. An excellent post, as usual. Another irony, I think, is that even if you do take the ultra-practical view of “preparing the workforce”, as your post alludes to, a proper ‘preparation’ involves not simply drumming a bunch of facts, or even skills, into children’s minds, but rather in raising them to be rounded, intelligent and hard-working citizens – something which our current education system seems to accomplish rather poorly, thanks in no small part to the inundation of exams and the general prevalence of the box-ticking approach – putting everyone in their ‘proper place’ the consequences be damned, as you say!

    All I can say is that I find it rather illuminating that the French, who, for all their occasional oddities, often seem a good deal more enlightened than us when it comes to how to live a fulfilling life, attach far more connotations to their word ‘éducation’ than we do to ‘education’. ‘L’éducation’, to the French, encompasses not just what kids get taught at school, but their entire upbringing. Seems to me like we could borrow some of that thinking for our own use.

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