This week's article for The Daily Telegraph: 'Michael Gove has shifted the centre ground on education'
Today's column for The Daily Telegraph is also available on their website.:
Ask any MP and I suspect they’ll tell you there’s things about their job they love and other things they find frustrating, or even infuriating.
One of the best things about my job is my role as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Here is a minister with a clear idea of what he wants to do. His message – that if Britain is to win in the global race, we need a more demanding curriculum, more rigorous academic and vocational qualifications, even better headteachers and teachers and a greater intolerance for schools that are failing our children – is, in an age when too many politicians simply say what they think people want to hear, an uncomfortable one for pupils, parents and teachers alike. But it has the great virtue of being true. And as yesterday’s statement on reforming GCSEs showed, the Labour Party doesn’t know how to respond to it.
The evidence that a combination of less demanding content, modularisation and an over-reliance on coursework and controlled assessment has undermined GCSEs is overwhelming. To be fair, even shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has admitted that there was grade inflation under the last government. As a Blairite, one suspects that he privately agreed with every word Michael had to say yesterday. But he’s under orders from Ed Miliband’s office to take no prisoners. While welcoming some aspects of the proposals, he therefore argued that reforms should only proceed if they “command consensus”. So there you have it: Labour’s position is that we can only restore rigour to our exam system if we have Christine Blower’s consent.
In the absence of any clear steer from their front bench, Labour MPs made up their own mind. Some predictably opposed any move away from coursework and modularisation, bizarrely arguing that being assessed in bite-sized chunks rather than at the end of the course was more likely to give you a deep understanding of a subject. One rightly warned of the implications for Welsh students of the different approach being taken by the Labour administration in Cardiff.
But fascinatingly, several Labour MPs supported most or all of what Michael had to say. Former education secretary David Blunkett agreed that we need to remove “the over-emphasis on a modular approach and assessment”. Barry Sheerman, the former chair of the education select committee, welcomed the proposals. But class prize goes to Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow health minister. I suspect Telegraph readers don’t often find themselves agreeing with her but yesterday, unlike her front bench, she spoke up for the real interests of young people growing up without the advantages most MPs enjoyed:
“An emphasis on rigorous qualifications and on obtaining core academic subjects is not, as is sometimes argued, contrary to the interests of working-class children and of black and minority ethnic children... on the contrary... if someone is the first in their family to stay on past school leaving age... if someone does not have parents who can put in a word for them in a difficult job market, they need the assurance of rigorous qualifications and, if at all possible, core academic qualifications.”
If only Ed Miliband or Stephen Twigg could bring themselves to repeat those sentiments.
So what do yesterday’s exchanges show us? That if we have the confidence to do what is right for the country as a whole – and particularly for those most in need – it is possible to shift the centre ground of British politics. And there are those, even in the Labour Party, who will support us.