Michael Gove is widely regarded as a radical reformer. Until now, he has brilliantly combined radicalism with reassurance. But the introduction of the English baccalaureate could upset this skilful balance. Tim Montgomerie has characterised this latest reform as an instance of successful Tory-LibDem co-operation. But I'm worried that the E-bac marks the moment when the curse of Clegg starts to infect a department that has, so far, escaped the dead hand of coalition.
Instead of tempering Mr Gove's radicalism with pragmatism and common sense, LibDem intervention in this policy has undermined its credibility. The new examination cannot be both academically demanding and suitable for all teenagers. It also looks foolish to dismantle GCSEs without providing a complete replacement, and to run some subjects under a new brand whilst allowing the rest to muddle along as (now discredited) GCSEs.
After a slightly wobbly start in the summer of 2010, the Education Secretary has until now shown a firm grip of his Department and displayed complete fluency when defending his reforms, both in the House of Commons and to the media. It's been clear from his list of achievements that he is determined to use every moment in power to improve education standards in this country: turning half of all secondary schools into academies, opening 79 free schools, toughening up the OFSTED inspection regime, making A-levels more rigorous, insisting that children must be taught to read by proven methods, demanding a return to elitism in higher education.
Importantly, radical reform – in the shape of freeing schools from state control – has been accompanied by a programme of reassurance, thanks in part to the steady work of Nick Gibb, his Schools Minister until the reshuffle. Government micro-management, in matters such as discipline, spelling tests and curriculum content, might have seemed philosophically difficult to reconcile with giving greater independence to schools. But these interventions have played an important role in keeping parents on side and demonstrating that the current generation of pupils will not be cut adrift as changes take place.
Furthermore, in sharp contrast to Andrew Lansley's health reforms, Mr Gove never gave the appearance of demanding change for its own sake, and succeeded in communicating the urgency and purpose of his policies. And as the token LibDem in his department, Sarah Teather, had neither the ability nor the confidence to challenge her boss, it seemed that the junior partners in the coalition were unable to lay a finger on the Education Secretary, who brimmed with confidence.
Summer leaks of Michael Gove's plans for “the return of the O-Level” suggested all was not well behind the coalition scenes, however. As the editors of ConservativeHome so presciently observed, Nick Clegg's reshuffle decision to plant David Laws in the education department heralded the clipping of Mr Gove's wings. This week's E-bac compromise is the result. At present it looks like a clumsy policy which could undermine the Education Secretary's reputation and disrupt an otherwise successful programme.
There are many good qualities in the new E-bac: the end of coursework, greater depth of subject knowledge, a single exam board for each subject. In contrast to his previous sureness of touch, however, Mr Gove is in danger of making heavy weather of a reform that should flow on seamlessly from the changes he has already instituted. By announcing the new exam without laying out what will happen to non E-bac subjects, and by giving it such an awkward label, he is failing to provide the reassurance necessary to inspire confidence.
The term “English baccalaureate” was first coined by the education department last year to describe the acquisition of a minimum core of GCSEs. The decision to use the phrase was at least explicable, insofar as “baccalaureate” is a recognised description of a diploma or collection of exams across several subjects, the best-known example in the UK being the International Baccalaureate (an academically-demanding sixth-form diploma adopted first by leading public schools and now by some academies and grammar schools). Now it seems the term may be applied to each of the component subject exams; it will be possible to have an English baccalaureate in English, or an English baccalaureate in physics. It's bound to cause confusion.
There is no doubt that GCSEs as currently constituted lack academic rigour, have been discredited by grade inflation and, by trying to be accessible to all, have ended up serving no-one. What puzzles me is that Mr Gove had available a ready-made option for imposing higher standards. It has non-modular, academically-demanding exams, involves a leading university (Cambridge) in setting exam papers, and is already tried and tested in Britain's thriving independent schools sector. It's called the International GCSE.
Given that one of Mr Gove's key reasons for upgrading GCSEs is the need to compete on the international stage, wouldn't this have been the perfect solution? It's certainly very popular in Singapore, the country often held up by the Education Secretary as a model for England to follow. Where it is used in the UK, it sits alongside existing GCSEs and pupils are already used to taking a mix of the two. What's not to like? By announcing that all schools would be expected to offer IGCSEs to all those pupils able to benefit from them, Mr Gove could have saved himself a good deal of time, trouble and controversy. And it's hard to believe that Nick Clegg could have found anything truly objectionable in a qualification with such evident international cachet.
As a huge fan of all that Michael Gove has achieved to date, I'm really disappointed to be criticising this latest initiative. But I would hate to see education heading the way of health reform. In other words: badly sold, needlessly complex, noisily reinventing the wheel when it would have been better to build on existing reforms – and ultimately neutered by coalition.
Let us hope that the next few months of consultation will provide an opportunity for some sensible changes to be made to this week's proposal, so that the achievements of the last two years will not be jeopardised by such a half-baked policy.