Labour’s ongoing muddled position on ‘O-levels’


by Sunny Hundal    
8:55 am - September 17th 2012

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First there was the muddle over Michael Gove’s free schools – after Stephen Twigg came in it wasn’t clear whether he opposed them or supported them, or what Labour would do about them.

Then there was the initially muted response to the English GCSE results fiasco.

Now there is a confused muddle on Michael Gove’s plans to replace GCSEs with O-levels.

The Guardian reports today that Nick Clegg has forced Gove to drop the two-tier exam system. This is a good thing, although it’s not clear why we are going back to O-levels then.

Stephen Twigg initially (rightly) criticised the O-levels plan by saying the two-tier exam system would leave most pupils on the scrap heap.

What is his view now? He says:

It is inappropriate for an overhaul of GCSEs to be leaked while young people taking English GCSEs this year have been treated so unfairly, and are still in limbo. Labour supports rigorous exams but only if they don’t act as a cap on aspiration. Politicians should not set an artificial limit on the number of top grades, rather the best work should be rewarded.

What does that actually mean? His main criticism is that the details are being leaked to media outlets?

How is that coherent in any way?

Compare and contrast to Andy Burnham’s response today on the news of the NHS carve-up of services by private companies:

Labour said the report was “concrete proof that the great NHS carve-up is well under way. The government opened the floodgates with a Health Act that places a market free-for-all at the heart of the health.

“Worse still, in Jeremy Hunt we now have a health secretary who bent over backwards in his last job to promote powerful private interests and, in his own back yard, encouraged the handing over of NHS community services to Virgin. The NHS is not at all safe in Mr Hunt’s hands.”

At least you can call that opposition.

Stephen Twigg was initially against the move to O-levels, but now looks to be out-maneuvered by Michael Gove. Again.

UPDATE
This afternoon Stephen Twigg finally issued a more robust statement:

The problem with these changes are they are totally out of date, from a Tory-led Government totally out of touch with modern Britain. Whatever the reassurances, this risks a return to a two-tier system which left thousands of children on the scrap heap at the age of 16. Why else are the changes being delayed until 2017?

Schools do need to change as all children stay on in education to 18 and we face up to the challenges of the 21st Century. We won’t achieve that with a return to the 1980s. Instead, we need a system that promotes rigour and breadth, and prepares young people for the challenges of the modern economy.

But, significantly, it fails to mention what Labour would do in response. Scrap them? Keep them? Modify the rules? It’s not clear.

At least Burnham took a clearer line by promising to repeal the NHS Bill.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


Be fair to Stephen Twigg. Gove is a difficult opponent. He was up against it when he first came into the job and had to face Ed Balls who had been, until recently, the Secretary of State. But he saw off Andy Burnham who you rightly praise for doing well at health (his specialist subject).

Twigg is not my kind of Labour but he is in a very tricky position. Gove’s reforms are populist and aimed at backing Labour into a corner alongside the uncompromising leaders of the teachers unions. Ed Miliband has made it clear in private that there will be no wholesale opposition to the Tory reforms, and we have Andrew Adonis providing the Coalition with constant bipartisan cover (just this weekend he was star speaker at a pro-free schools event hosted by Gove vehicle, the New Schools Network).

Easy to blame Stephen Twigg but you wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.

Given the last Labour governments decision that “education, education, education” meant “marketise education via the medium of parental choice”, it’s not surprising that there’s little of any opposition to current Tory educational plans. Indeed if memory serves there was an awful lot of buggering about expanding various religious schools under the ideology of “choice” that had some vague at best connection to educational standards, then there was the sports collage thing and then academies – are free schools and fucking about with qualifications really outside this dogma?
I think not.
Hence – no coherent opposition.

“Gove’s reforms are populist” Well you might want to do some fact-checking Peter. Recent YouGov poll shows 65% of public opposed to free schools.

The fact that they cannot coherently oppose these idiotic panderings to the Daily Mail? Good grief! There are absolutely no educational reasons for these changes, they are pure politics based upon a fallacious nostalgia.

This is a black mark for Labour.

Twigg could simply state that any Labour policy would be evidence based for a start. Not some system that dumps two thirds of its participants on the scrapheap.

Considering we need smart education to give future generations a chance in the world they will inherit Govey & Twigg should be ashamed of themselves.

Actually, laying down a marker on the use of set percentages for the different bands is quite important. Unless you think he should be going to the mattresses for modularity?

I think Labour’s problem is that we’ve reached the bottom of a slippery slope. The invisible hand of the market has guided us to a situation in which schools are obliged to shop around for easier exams, and to put pupils through endless resits, in order to improve the results they get on paper. Result: ever-improving results with ever-decreasing credibility.

In a situation like that, ‘rip it up and start again’ is an easier sell than ‘let’s see if we can’t tweak things a bit’. Still, I think the latter *should* be Labour’s basic message – e.g. we should support the move to end competition between exam boards.

Two things in particular that are worrying me:

1 – this has all the ingredients of a ‘worst of both worlds’ bit of coalition policymaking: from the Tories we get a tougher, O-level style exam, and from the Lib Dems we get an assurance that this will be a single-tier system. So what happens to the least academic pupils? Do they spend two years studying for an exam they can’t hope to pass? Or are they identified at 14 and put on a vocational course instead? Or what?

2 – what is the supposed connection between academic rigour and a focus on end-of-year exams over coursework? The further children progress in their education, the less relevant exam skills are going to be and the more they will be relying on research skills, the ability to craft long essays, etc. If a sixteen-year-old finds it hard to construct a thoughtful essay in forty minutes, think straight with a full bladder, or write neatly while their wrist is cramping up, just what is that supposed to tell us about their ability to do well at degree level and beyond?

The only Labour government in the UK (Wales), has been consistent in it’s opposition to the re-introduction of O-levels, and are not going to introduce them in Wales. (There was already an ongoing review into the Welsh exam system) Leighton Andrews, the Welsh Education Minister seems inclinded to keep GCSEs in Wales, and has been highly crtical of the English Education Minister, Michael Gove, both the professionalism of Michael Gove and the policy itself.

8. gastro george

Twigg is a Blairite tw*t and is probably, like Adonis (also puffed by Martin Kettle in the Graun last week), a closet admirer of Gove’s policies.

gastro george:

Twigg is a Blairite tw*t and is probably, like Adonis (also puffed by Martin Kettle in the Graun last week), a closet admirer of Gove’s policies.

Pretty much sums up how I feel too. Labour had its chance with the Tomlinson report and the diploma system – only Blair torpedoed it to appease the Daily Mail. I don’t think Labour have come up with anything since, and I always suspected Adonis would side with the ‘New Labour on Crack’ aspects of coalition policy.

As for Gove’s ideas, there’s no integration of a 13-18 qualification system to address the raising of the school leaving age; there’s no engagement with what to do about vocational qualifications; and it’s hard to see how the willy-waving of ‘three hour exams’ is actually going to develop students’ abilities (Gove’s going to need a modern language speaking/listening test for a start).

As for Clegg’s assurances…excuse me while I laugh. Gove will run rings round him.

10. gastro george

What makes it worse is that Gove, like IDS’s universal benefit scheme, is a walking own goal for the Tories – their policies are poorly thought through and inconsistent. Yet idiots like Twigg are completely failing to exploit this.

11. Christopher Heward

#3 I Googled your remark and it turns out that it’s about half that, with sentiment fairly even. What #1 is saying is perhaps slightly more backed up by the evidence, as I think he was referring to these specific changes, rather than free schools/academies, and these kinds of changes have 41/36 support. Still marginal though, so it seems as thought the country is split, probably according to whether they support the Conservatives or Labour unfortunately!

‘On education Michael Gove’s own approval rating as Secretary of state for Education is minus 31, so he is seen as doing worse than Cameron and Miliband. However, people are actually fairly evenly split over his policies – academies are supported by 35%, opposed by 35%. On free schools 36% support their creation, 39% are opposed. 41% of people support a more traditionalist approach to education, 36% think it would be wrong.’
http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/6152

Stephen Twigg: “Whatever the reassurances, this risks a return to a two-tier system which left thousands of children on the scrap heap at the age of 16.”

It is dismaying that Twigg forgets that education leaving age is set to rise in 2013 and 2015. It is dismaying that any politician or commentator writes off young people who don’t do well at age 16 years. This summer, we have listened to a storm of complaints about rule changes mid-academic session (I think that the changes were misguided) which appear to accept that *one* exam result should be sufficient to determine the opportunities for a young person.

How do we reconcile faith in academic superstars (40-50% of young people entering higher education) with the reality that young people screw up or underachieve for a variety of reasons? Apart from compulsion, how do we get young people to engage in education, or are we perhaps wasting their time and our money?

Michael Gove’s proposals will make little difference to anyone, apart from those boys who slack on the course work but can work through a long exam. Boys, overall, will probably improve their grades under the proposed assessment. I fear that the proposals won’t encourage love of learning and that Twigg has nothing useful to say in opposition.

Those young people who missed a grade this summer in GCSE need another chance. They deserve the same chance as anyone else who tried and failed — opportunities to continue or re-enter education (for personal illumination or to pursue vocational study) which are independent of age.

What makes you think “we are going back to O-Levels”? That might be the spin, but the main change is going to be that the new exams aren’t modular – well, when I took GCSEs in 1994, they weren’t modular either. As for introducing a single exam board, I don’t think that was the case in O-Level days, was it? The main point of O-Levels was that only an elite sat them – which won’t be the case with the new exams.

@13. RP: “What makes you think “we are going back to O-Levels”? That might be the spin, but the main change is going to be that the new exams aren’t modular – well, when I took GCSEs in 1994, they weren’t modular either.”

Modular course are relatively new — in practice. In higher education, modular courses theoretically allow students to move between different places of study. I dunno how well/badly this works for school students.

“As for introducing a single exam board, I don’t think that was the case in O-Level days, was it?”

There were several examination bodies. Some universities did not look kindly on applicants who were studying at the “wrong” board. The JMB (look it up) was run by northern universities to ensure high or constant standards.

“The main point of O-Levels was that only an elite sat them – which won’t be the case with the new exams.”

O Levels were studied at Secondary Moderns and Comprehensives. It can be argued that those schools that did not teach O Levels could not be bothered to do so. O Levels and A Levels are not qualifications for the elite, as demonstrated by lots of common people who sat them in their teens or followed up in later years.

It was a Labour policy to raise the leaving age to 18 – one enthusiastically supported by this blog, if memory serves. If this is going ahead then talking about people being left on the scrapheap at 16 doesn’t make any sense surely? I can’t claim expertise on the English system but I know this much: you have a one-tier system now? I don’t think so.

16. gastro george

“The main point of O-Levels was that only an elite sat them – which won’t be the case with the new exams.”

Not, but if you read the rhetoric, it’s only an elite that will pass them.

I’m just wondering how the government is going to get past the contradiction between higher failure rates (which is undoubtedly implied) and better performance in the international league tables.

Unless they believe that their policy will raise standards – which is the equivalent of believing that austerity will improve the economy.

17. Chaise Guevara

@ 12 Charlieman

“It is dismaying that Twigg forgets that education leaving age is set to rise in 2013 and 2015.”

True.

“It is dismaying that any politician or commentator writes off young people who don’t do well at age 16 years.”

Not so much. If someone points out that group X have worse life chances, he’s not saying that everyone in group X is doomed to failure. He’s saying that people in that group do, in fact, have worse life chances on average.

If I point out that a country neglects people of a certain creed and makes it hard for them to succeed in life, you’re not going to shame me by saying I’m insulting your friend Bob, who’s of that creed and is now rich and famous. Y’see?

Only “elites” were put in for the old O-levels. The rest followed curriculums which prevented them from taking O-levels.

Just how wrong that could be is shown by the case of Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Mansfield FRS, who failed his 11+ and left school at 15 to become a bookbinder’s apprentice. He took A-levels in evening classes and gained entry to university where he attained a first class honours degree in physics. His Nobel Prize was for developing the crucial software for MRI scanners.

The fact is that the numbers of A grades in the GSCEs had become something of a joke and try this Guardian report from January 2011:

Schools under fire as 1 in 6 pupils achieve ‘English bac’ – GCSE pupils have turned their backs on traditional subjects opting for ‘softer’ alternatives such as media studies, league tables show
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jan/12/1-in-6-get-english-baccalaureate

Reform was inevitable.

@16 George,

“Not, but if you read the rhetoric, it’s only an elite that will pass them.”

You may be right, and that sounds worrying, but on the other hand, are Es, Fs and Gs really considered passes by employers or by the general public, or only by exam boards? If I get a set of Gs, am I better off advertising that fact or is it better to say I didn’t sit the exams at all?

“I’m just wondering how the government is going to get past the contradiction between higher failure rates (which is undoubtedly implied) and better performance in the international league tables.”

That depends I suppose. Do the equivalents of F and G performance at GCSE actually count for anything in international league tables?

Arguably, what we should really be worrying about is not the GCSEs but this:

“The National Curriculum test results also revealed that in spite of an improvement in English and maths, more than a third of pupils still left primary school without a proper grasp of the basics in reading, writing and maths.” [August 2010]
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ba881948-9f3f-11df-8732-00144feabdc0.html

And this:

“Up to 12 million working UK adults have the literacy skills expected of a primary school child, the Public Accounts Committee says. . . The report says there are up 12 million people holding down jobs with literacy skills and up to 16 million with numeracy skills at the level expected of children leaving primary school.” [BBC website]

Twigg:

Schools do need to change as all children stay on in education to 18 and we face up to the challenges of the 21st Century. We won’t achieve that with a return to the 1980s. Instead, we need a system that promotes rigour and breadth, and prepares young people for the challenges of the modern economy.

So what is he going to do? The so-called ‘Ebacc’ isn’t anything of the kind, not least because it’s taken at 16 whereas the International Baccalaureate is taken at 18, as is the ‘Welsh Bac’ (lucky Wales: devolution will probably spare them Gove’s wrecking ball…no wonder he was so pissed off about the GCSE re-mark).

Here are four off-the-cuff suggestions:

1 – Point out how the ‘Ebacc’ doesn’t address the raising of the school leaving age to 18

2 – Point out that it’s nowhere near flexible enough (under the current so-called ‘Ebacc’ a brilliant science student doesn’t get an Ebacc if they do badly in history but get straight A*s in all three sciences).

3 – Argue that Labour would introduce an ‘Ebacc’ more along the lines of the Welsh model for 13-18 year olds or the Tomlinson Report diplomas.

4 – Emphasise how Gove has overlooked vocational skills and qualifications: they are not some side-issue for ‘less able’ students

And if anyone starts banging on about abolishing A levels, point out that extending an ‘Ebacc’/diploma style framework would solve many of the problems of the GCSE/A level system (and was based o0n a damn sight more evidence and consultation that any of Gove’s reforms).

Alternatively, sack Twigg and get someone who can do a much better job.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. sunny hundal

    Labour’s muddled and confused position on Michael Gove's O-levels http://t.co/JF5Gf10h

  2. Debbie

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  3. Rob McDonald

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  4. Fiona Laird

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  6. Jane Phillips

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  7. sunny hundal

    When will Labour's Stephen Twigg develop a coherent response to Michael Gove's drastic changes to education? http://t.co/JF5Gf10h

  8. Bonnie Greer

    When will Labour's Stephen Twigg develop a coherent response to Michael Gove's drastic changes to education? http://t.co/JF5Gf10h

  9. Debbie

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  11. Colin Thain

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  12. Kav Kaushik

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  13. Michael Williamson

    When will Labour's Stephen Twigg develop a coherent response to Michael Gove's drastic changes to education? http://t.co/JF5Gf10h

  14. Martin Steel

    When will Labour's Stephen Twigg develop a coherent response to Michael Gove's drastic changes to education? http://t.co/JF5Gf10h

  15. Martin Steel

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  16. Jason Brickley

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  17. Harry Scoffin

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  18. Jeni Parsons

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  19. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – Labour’s muddled and confused position on ‘O-levels’ http://t.co/LEY5vewF

  20. John Dyer

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  21. Kirsty Ramsay

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  22. Sparkley Twinkle

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  23. John Dyer

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  24. Seema Chandwani

    http://t.co/xSioaf7y Labour's Muddled & Confused Position On Education… Excellent piece by @sunny_hundal

  25. Tricia Jewell

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  26. Shantel Burns

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  27. Kevin Donovan

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  28. Seb Schmoller

    When will Labour's Stephen Twigg develop a coherent response to Michael Gove's drastic changes to education? http://t.co/JF5Gf10h

  29. Alex Braithwaite

    Labour’s muddled and confused position on ‘O-levels’ | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/G7Px8tyN via @libcon#Twigg ping-ponging yet again

  30. Bob Harrison

    When will Labour's Stephen Twigg develop a coherent response to Michael Gove's drastic changes to education? http://t.co/JF5Gf10h

  31. Luton NUT

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  32. Andrew Bethell

    When will Labour's Stephen Twigg develop a coherent response to Michael Gove's drastic changes to education? http://t.co/JF5Gf10h

  33. StudentCoaching

    When will Labour's Stephen Twigg develop a coherent response to Michael Gove's drastic changes to education? http://t.co/JF5Gf10h

  34. pissedatgov

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  35. Jerry Hall

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  36. Safraze Narwaz

    When will Labour's Stephen Twigg develop a coherent response to Michael Gove's drastic changes to education? http://t.co/JF5Gf10h

  37. sunny hundal

    Labour's Stephen Twigg develops a more robust, but still *confusing*, position against Gove http://t.co/Um9u1hm9

  38. Martin Robinson

    Labour's Stephen Twigg develops a more robust, but still *confusing*, position against Gove http://t.co/Um9u1hm9

  39. GV Europe in Crisis

    Labour's Stephen Twigg develops a more robust, but still *confusing*, position against Gove http://t.co/Um9u1hm9

  40. BMetAlevelPolitics

    Labour's Stephen Twigg develops a more robust, but still *confusing*, position against Gove http://t.co/Um9u1hm9





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