Let us all give thanks for Michael Gove, a minister who not only has a clear set of Conservative beliefs but also seems determined to implement policies promised by the Conservatives when in opposition. As another week of depressing headlines unfolds, including the Coalition's U-turn on internet surveillance, the Education Secretary has stepped forward to restore our confidence with his bold proposal to put universities in charge of A levels.
Mr Gove first set out this reform in a speech two years ago, in which he promised to end grade inflation by taking A-levels out of the hands of bureaucrats and giving them to the institutions with the strongest interest in ensuring their stringency: the universities. The pledge was repeated in the Conservatives' 2010 election manifesto. There is good reason to be confident that we shall see this reform implemented; Mr Gove has the backing of OfQual, and the Russell group of universities, whose members are desperate to see rigour returned to the public exam system. Opposition from the NUT and Professor Les Ebdon's Million+ group is entirely predictable and provides further reassurance – if any were needed – that Mr Gove is on the side of academic rigour.
Importantly, the reform is fully consistent with the other changes the Education Secretary is making. All are based on the understanding that freedom from state control is an essential step in promoting high standards, and that such freedom is also in the best interests of pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who have been sold short by state schools which are falling behind their international counterparts. Mr Gove is also determined to learn from the mistakes of previous Conservative governments. Margaret Thatcher's reforming Education Secretary Ken Baker believed that the only way to ensure high standards was for the state to take control of the curriculum; John Major hoped that reclassifying polytechnics as universities would give poorer students greater access to an elite education. In contrast, Michael Gove understands that civil servants cannot prescribe lesson content and that making exams easier to pass, or dumbing down degree courses, will not make students cleverer.
The changes announced this week are crucial to the overall success of the Conservatives' education reform programme. Ultimately, A-levels determine the quality of education at all preceding points, as well as preserving university standards. If schools are to be set free from government control, then it is necessary for them to be measured by an independent standard which will command public confidence, and which is not susceptible to political manipulation. Giving A-levels back to the universities cannot entirely guarantee such a standard, but it is more likely to do so than any other alternative currently available.
There are three main reasons why parents, pupils, employers and indeed teachers should welcome this reform. First and most obviously, it should help to ensure that A-level courses prepare students for university. This is vital in enabling British universities to retain their world-class reputation, rather than being obliged to water down their academic standards to meet the needs of inadequately educated students, or to devote the valuable first year of university to remedial work. Students will get better value from their degree courses as a result.
Secondly, by raising school standards it should enable students from all backgrounds to be admitted to university on grounds of merit, rather than through social engineering. At present, the lack of depth in A-levels means that pupils who are reliant on the school curriculum alone and lack the additional resources provided by well-educated parents, or by independent schools, cannot compete equally with children from more advantaged homes. These pupils stand to benefit most from the reforms, giving them equal access to an elite education.
Thirdly, and contrary to comments made by some teachers' representatives, the potential benefit of this reform is not confined to university entrants. Greater rigour and depth in sixth form studies is in the interests of all school leavers; if their formal education ends with A-levels then it is all the more important that young people have a proper grounding in their chosen subjects, making them more valuable to employers. The trickle-down effect of higher A-level should benefit all schoolchildren, as it will inevitably have an impact on the pre-GCSE curriculum by deepening subject knowledge and reducing dependence on constant testing; teachers should welcome this.
There is another reason to celebrate this announcement and to support Michael Gove's team as they put this change into effect: it represents a rare but important loosening of state control. When the Conservatives under David Cameron were preparing for government, their most important political message was that “big government” had failed; that the Labour years had proved conclusively that expanding the size and reach of the state did not improve the quality of our lives, indeed that it wasted billions of pounds while entrenching many social problems. Since coming to power, David Cameron and his colleagues have too often forgotten this message, and have stumbled as a result.
Michael Gove is one of the few ministers still striving to put into practice this self-denying ordinance: that Whitehall does not always know best and that a successful minister is one who puts key enabling reforms in place and then stands back for them to take effect. If more of his colleagues could adhere to this course of action, the public might begin to see the point of a Conservative-led government.