Michael Gove's plans to end GCSEs in maths, English and the sciences in favour of a more rigorous 'O level' system are a casus belli with the diehards of the status quo: unions, educationists, officials and their political allies.
Nick Clegg emerged as their champion, when he broke away from a summit in Rio to oppose any change that led to a 'two tiered system'. Cliché though it sounds, that phrase has served as the rallying cry of the interest groups since the 1960s: their manipulation of the politics of education has helped to make this country the dunce of Europe. The dismantling of the grammar schools, the vandalisation of the exam system, the dumbing down of teaching have all been justified politically by this inane slogan. Yet the truth is that England's system has become genuinely 'two tiered'. It works only for those whose parents are rich enough buy their way out of it (the Cleggs of this world) or are lucky enough to use free-of-charge that rarest of social goods, a school where teachers teach, stretch and aspire and defy the ethos of the official system.
For most English children life is not sweetened by such money or luck. On the whole they are failed by their schooling where standards are pitched far lower than those of the countries with whom we co-exist but must compete. They will be handicapped when it comes to competing with global (and EU) rivals where elitism and differentiation in education give opportunity to the many, not just the rich.
By contrast, our exams and curriculum are pitched at so low a level that even the ablest pupils do not reach the standard set for lower attainers elsewhere. Maths A-level does not even match the work done by the less able at German Hauptschulen. Meanwhile the 26 per cent of 16-25 year-olds who drop out of education or training and have no job should serve as a salutary reminder to Mr Gove's critics. They must see that the present system makes for few winners either academically or in the vocational subjects in which our continental counterparts also excel. (See Politeia's Comparing Standards, Academic and Vocational, 16-19)
Gove is right to begin with the exam system at 16, where the uniform GCSE fails to test and stretch most pupils: even when pupils can get top marks, they are often left ignorant of the fundamentals in the subject and the basis on which to build subsequent success. They are increasingly ill-equipped to compete for the good universities or jobs against the better prepared candidates from Europe and Asia, as happens already in the labour market and for university admissions.
Not only, therefore, must the standard of exams be raised, but more rigorous teaching and a better educated teaching profession is needed: in maths and physics, for example, teachers who have taken the subjects to A-level should be the rule for the younger pupils while university subject degree standard should be necessary to teach the more advanced groups. That is another lesson to be taken to heart from our more successful competitors.
Yes, Michael Gove may have to battle it out with the politicians in his own and other parties. Some may believe the low level exam system is the lifeline for the masses. Some may be beneficiaries of the giant gravy train of a world of education, milked by the local officials, councillors and politicians, the poorest custodians of excellence. Mercifully Mr Gove does not have to take account of the venal considerations of the town and county hall, as unlike Mr Clegg his constituency is national. He, like all who have this country's interests - and educational interests at heart - knows that without radical change, a huge proportion of our children will become the serfs of a new economic order.
This post was also published on Politeia's blog.
Follow Sheila Lawlor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@Politeiauk