They piled into the chamber to hear him, always a cool performer even when being forced to climb down (and, let’s face it, he’s had a bit of practice). So it proved yesterday in the House of Commons. Michael Gove almost managed to make his U-turn on the scrapped EBCs sound like part of a bigger masterplan. Almost, but not quite.
Political realities had made his decision inevitable. Condemnation of the proposals had came from every side. When the CBI, Ofqual, the Education Select Committee – chaired by a prominent backbencher from your own party – and a series of popular figures in the arts are all against you, it is time for a minister to admit, in Gove’s own words, that it was a “bridge too far”.
But triumphalist opponents should beware. Gove might have ditched the idea of a single exam board for the now discredited EBCs but many of his other reforms remain, including a reformed curriculum, and abolition of coursework and “bite-size” modules, all of which could still make the now retained GCSEs pointlessly demoralising for a significant number of pupils.
Gove also announced no fewer than eight new accountability measures for schools which, for good and ill, will once again change the terms of the league table game for exhausted heads while allowing Gove to claim that he has listened carefully to his critics.
Here lies the real problem with this sort of rhetorical and rushed politics. On the one hand, it is just all too much. Too many ill-thought-out Big Ideas. Too many elegantly dispensed U-turns. Too many education ministers nailing the supposed faults of the system, while arrogantly ignoring the interests, and experience, of the people who really matter: heads, teachers, governors, students.
On the other hand, a series of fundamental problems remains unaddressed. With the leaving age soon to rise to 18, many now question the need for 16-plus exams. Indeed, when Gove talked yesterday of creating an education system to “match and exceed those in the highest performing jurisdictions”, he failed to mention that most of them don’t have high-stakes exams at 16 at all.
But please. Keep those back-of-the-envelope- scribbles to yourself. What we need now is some deep, long-term, possibly cross-party thinking, drawing on the experience of professionals, on how to create a genuinely comprehensive curriculum for the 21st century. Indeed, a group of secondary school heads, fed up with the Government’s failure to address this issue, has already started work on such a plan. Sometimes it is less important to dazzle for a day than think seriously about how to secure sustainable change for future generations. Labour should pay heed.
Melissa Benn is the author of ‘School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education’