The school as straitjacket

Michael Gove's plans to ditch GCSE exams are socially regressive - but, writes Paul Demarty, so is the obsession with examinations itself

It is not surprising that the one Tory policy to finally draw the open and complete disagreement of Nick Clegg and his party of patsies should have issued from the department for education, headed by that oaf-savant, Michael Gove.

His barely concealed enthusiasm for the wholesale deconstruction of Britain’s state education system, from the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) fiasco to his enthusiasm for academies and promotion of so-called ‘free schools’, and the hiking up of university fees that caused the Liberal Democrats so much discomfort in the first year of this government - almost every bright idea of Gove’s comes with a free migraine for Clegg.

This time around, he has gone too far even for the yellow mediocrities with whom he shares governmental office. The plan in question is to ditch the current system of general certificate of secondary education (GCSE) school qualifications, and return to a two-tier system after the fashion of the certificates of secondary education (CSEs) and O-levels that preceded them.

Gove may be a wilfully destructive troll of a minister, but he is not stupid. The very manner in which the plans came to light - leaked to the Daily Mail, before the Lib Dems even got a look at them, while Clegg was the other side of the world at the latest redundant climate change summit - should tell us that Gove and his office did not expect their partners to buy it. That was clearly never the point. It has not stopped Clegg from taking severe umbrage at the education secretary’s behaviour. “This has not been subject to a collective discussion in government,” he huffed to Radio 4’s World at one. “Neither myself nor the prime minister were aware of it.”[1]

Alas! For poor Nick Clegg, insult is piled upon insult. A day later, aides at number 10 suggested that Cameron was indeed aware of Gove’s plans in advance of the leak.[2] In fact Cameron seems to be in broad support of the proposals, and has indicated that he would like them to be included in the Tories’ next election manifesto (clearly, they are ruled out for this parliament).

The silver lining for Clegg is obvious enough - just as this policy shows Gove’s eagerness to distance himself from the Lib Dems, so it provides a clear line of demarcation for Clegg, whose attempts to appear as anything other than a Tory whose blue tie is in the wash have so far been quite risible.

Master plan

The Gove proposals are transparently reactionary in themselves. They amount to an explicit avowal of elitism in the education system. The emergence of the comprehensive school system was a serious blow to this ideology, which was absolutely bread and butter to the Tories, but the maintenance of a two-tier exam system extended its lifespan by decades.

Leaving things at this level, however, is inadequate. Like Martin Luther King, Michael Gove has a dream. It is an education built specifically to the design of extremely old-fashioned Tory values. It will be elitist; it will inculcate good, old-fashioned British values, and a chauvinist identification with the state. It will be thorough in its discipline. It will be purged of the obsessions of the politically correct, namby-pamby liberal elite - such as secularism.

This may seem overly apocalyptic - but only to those who have not been paying attention. The axing of BSF - a large scale, and deeply flawed, private finance initiative school-building programme - kicked schools further down the road to becoming academies, or ‘free schools’. The proposal, in the wake of last summer’s riots, to introduce ‘male authority figures’ (ex-soldiers and so forth) into classrooms is one step short of corporal punishment, and nakedly patriarchal. The proposed Simon Schama-penned British history curriculum needs no further commentary.[3] It is abundantly clear what animates Gove as a political actor.

It will not be a two-tier system, but a system of Byzantine complexity - every sect of religious fruitcakes, every patrician bourgeois philanthropist, will have its own academy or ‘free school’. To this end, Gove’s leaked proposals contain - bizarrely unremarked upon, in favour of the question of exams - the abolition of the national curriculum, something already implicit in the flagship free schools programme (and, for that matter, the academies, which were, of course, a product of Blairism).

If Gove is successful (if there is an ounce of common sense still floating around Whitehall, he will not be), the education system will have taken a giant leap into the past - probably far enough into the past for the likes of Cameron and Gove to manage to sell it as ‘modernisation’.


Given the present state of affairs, such a sales pitch will not be hard.

The recent history of the British education system consists, for the most part, in its pseudo-rationalisation. The ever-expanding tyranny of the national curriculum, the shift from O-levels to GCSEs, and from ‘old-fashioned’ A-levels to New Labour’s highly modular version of the same - all have the result that education provides a streamlined series of quantitative metrics.

Slicing a chemistry A-level into six weighted and carefully delimited chunks, and doing the same with English literature, provides the illusion of a comparison with mathematical precision. And the multiplication of such chunks - which have long penetrated into the GCSE system - has the effect that the subjects under study lose their coherence as subjects. Turning up at university with one’s chemistry A-level says no more than that one has the requisite intellectual skills to study the hard sciences to a certain level, along with a superficial and increasingly arbitrary scattering of subject knowledge.

That schools have taken on this character is part of a broader technocratic ideology which has flourished since the rise of the new right, and most especially under New Labour. Such political trends self-conceived not, as an older Toryism did, as defenders of traditional social hierarchies, but as the friends of aspiration and ‘social mobility’. The role of government is to administer a system which allows anyone, regardless of background, to make a ‘success’ of themselves.

Education, for this ideology, is about results - ultimately this means how many school-leavers go on to contribute to Britain’s GDP; but the intermediary metrics (school-leavers going to university, school-leavers getting apprenticeships, league tables of exam results, etc) are equally flourished as evidence of successful education policy, or wielded by opposition parties as evidence of failure.

This ideology is a pretty poor representation of reality, however. After 30 years of Thatcherism and post-Thatcherism, society is as stratified as ever. GCSEs, in fact, do quite as good a job of social stratification as O-levels and CSEs ever did - students are routinely streamed into ‘foundation-level’ exams, in which the highest grades are not available. Those who leave formal education at 16, for the most part, will never do more than the most draining unskilled labour. On the other end of the scale, simply maximising the number of students in universities has resulted only in a huge spike in graduate unemployment.

In order to spin things as a success, governments must effectively cook the books. They must equally be seen to do something - hence the endless reorganisations of Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) and tweaks to the examination system. To the extent that the system actually succeeds on its own terms, it simply spits out people with the requisite faculties to carry out social functions of varying degrees of mindlessness. It consists not in maximising the development of all, but of limiting the development of enough people, such that they will face an economic compulsion to drudgery.

It is this hopeless state of affairs which Nick Clegg implies is worthy of defence.


It should go without saying that for communists this approach to education is little short of an abomination (it says something about Gove’s policies that the status quo looks attractive next to them). It should be said, first off, that the whole system of examinations needs to be torn up, and replaced with more meaningful approaches to judging students’ aptitudes and potential. Exams have become so dominant not because they are a good measure of such things, but because they produce numbers.

Yet the fetishisation of exams is only one of the many ways that schools are set up as straitjackets for students (and, for that matter, teachers). The process - explicit in the old grammar-school/secondary modern system, implicit today - of separation of future manual and mental workers is equally a recipe for stunted development. We favour a polytechnical approach to education, as a means of eventually overcoming the distinction between mental and manual labour altogether.

Lastly, the obsession with ‘discipline’ - present in an almost homoerotic form in Gove’s ‘male authority figures’ proposal - is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Teachers are increasingly forced, thanks to the general structure of education and almost invariably against their own instincts, to act like prison guards (had they wanted to do so, they would have become prison guards); it is to be expected that pupils will thus come to act like the more recalcitrant lifers in Pentonville. We want the general culture to be as collaborative as possible in schools - something that is the more possible, the more the perverse values of capitalism are overturned in society at large.

Almost every feature of contemporary education under capitalism, alas, points in the opposite direction.


1 . The Guardian June 22.

2 . The Guardian June 23.

3 . See J Turley, ‘The history boysWeekly Worker October 14 2010.