England’s U-Turn on Education

Michael Gove

Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning”. Little did she know that these same few words would haunt her successors thirty odd years later. After so many reversals of government policies, such as fuel taxes (also known in Britain as U-Turns). The recent major U-Turn has got to do with the British education policy of scrapping the GCSEs (which was previously mentioned in this Paper).

Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s policy of scrapping GCSEs was obviously ambitious. No one would doubt Mr. Gove wanted to use this landmark policy to become one of the strongest ministers in the cabinet. However, the plan to replace it with the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) was destroyed after significant opposition from the Liberal Democrats.

To be honest, the plan already seemed doomed when the National Association of Head Teachers opposed it for de-emphasizing sports and arts. Neither did it help that cultural luminaries such as staunchly Conservative supporter Andrew Lloyd Webber warned that the EBC would sideline the arts. This is a painfully similar situation in Singapore where the current GCE examinations have sidelined many of the arts subjects in our education system (ed. not entirely true. Arts subjects are just not popular among GCE candidates — and their parents).

The universities themselves are also not supportive of the reforms which includes enforcing rules for students to only take A-Level assessments at the end of two years of study. Cambridge University claimed that the changes Gove brought about was “unnecessary” and would “jeopardize over a decade’s fair access to the university”.

However, Gove was determined to push ahead, trying to convince the British public of the EBC’s usefulness and the need to raise Britain’s educational standards. The Liberal Democrats and some of Gove’s own colleagues were not convinced. Gove’s idea was  to emulate the Singaporean system of rigorous examinations, the chief difference being that the British are much more protective of their cultural arts. The opposition of the arts community was to push the Lib Dems to say ‘No!’ to Gove’s plan.

The Lib Dems also have good reason to say “No” to Gove’s plan. After antagonizing university students by breaking its promise not to raise university fees. The Lib Dems would have to think whether by pushing through such education reforms (and supposedly making children’s lives more miserable), they would lose the support of an entire generation of voters in the near future.

The Unions’ vocal opposition was another factor behind the reform’s downfall. The education system relies not just on policymakers like Mr. Gove, but also on the vast majority of education officers. British Teachers’ Unions are especially vocal, and neither Mr. Gove nor the British government could ignore the Unions for long.

The Conservative government has tried to defend the U-Turn, claiming that most of the reforms are intact, including some vigorous changes to the National Curriculum. However with such strong opposition to the reforms by the entire education and arts sectors,  get ready for more U-Turns on what Labour Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg, has described as “turning the clock back ” on education.


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