When Tony Blair was asked what his three main priorities were for government he famously replied, education, education and education. It was a turning point for working class people in Britain. When I was a young lad growing up in the 1970’s there were about 200,000 people at University in the UK, but Tony’s vision was to increase that to 50% of all children having a university degree.
There were two possible ways to achieve it. Educate our children to a much higher standard or make exams much easier and qualifications meaningless. Thankfully Tony Blair chose the latter. There are now over 2 million children in higher education and no town or village in England is without its own university. At first the new universities were former polytechnics who changed their names, but then other institutions such as Higher Education Colleges, former youth clubs and even fast food restaurant chains were given university status to help cope with the ever expanding demand for higher education.
Of course to help children get into university or “uni” as it has become known it was necessary to help them get better grades at A level and GCSE. This was achieved by allowing them to take the answers into the exams with them and by introducing coursework that they are allowed to do again and again until they achieve the required grades.
It certainly worked for my oldest son Clay-Barry. There were various obstacles preventing him from obtaining a degree. He was lazy, stupid and had difficulty writing his own name. But thanks to his GCSEs and A levels being mainly based on coursework which he did several times with the help of the teacher, and exams where he was allowed to take the answers in with him, he finally achieved 10 A stars at GCSE and 3 A stars at A level. With such stellar grades he received three offers from universities. He was tempted to read Surfing at Plymouth University or Adventure Studies at Chichester University before he finally settled for reading David Beckham Studies at Staffordshire University.
He spent three years studying such subjects as Beckham’s ever changing hairstyles, the meaning behind his tattoos and his marriage to Posh Spice before graduating with a first class honours degree and student loan debts of £27,000.
It was a proud moment for me. He was the first member of my family ever to obtain a GCSE, let alone a degree, and his success is a testament to the vision and political philosophy of Tony Blair.
Okay, like 20% of all graduates, he hasn’t been able to find a job since he graduated five years ago, apart from a short internship as a dustbin man and some work experience collecting trollies in the Asda car park, and he is saddled with debts of £27,000 from his time at university, but that doesn’t matter. He doesn’t have to pay back a penny of his student loan until he is earning more than £42,000 and, thanks to the fact that his degree certificate isn’t worth the paper it is written on, there is absolutely no chance of that ever happening.
I had expected all of my children to end up with degrees but now, thanks to government proposals to make GCSEs harder, there’s precious little chance of that!
I was sitting having a quiet pint last week in Notting Hill’s Windsor Castle pub fuming about the injustice of it all when who should walk in but education secretary Michael Gove. He looked as shocked to see me as I was to see him but came over wearing his avuncular politician’s smile.
“Hello Kevin,” he greeted me, “can I get you a drink?”
“Pint of lager please Michael,” I replied.
He went to the bar and returned with our pints, sitting down opposite me.
“You look a bit glum Kevin,” he said, “what’s the matter?”
“Funny you should ask,” I scowled back, “it’s your plans to make GCSE exams harder – they’re going to destroy my children’s prospects of success in life.”
“How?” he looked surprised.
“Because they’re lazy and stupid,” I replied, “and if you replace modular testing, coursework and tiering with a one off summer exam they’ll have no chance of passing.”
“I see,” he replied sympathetically, “but don’t you think it’s important that we improve our education system?”
“Not at the expense of children being branded failures,” I snapped back, “your plans are going to exclude children from higher education just because they’re too stupid to write their own name.”
“But do you think children who are, in your words, too stupid to write their own name, should become graduates?”
“Absolutely,” I told him straight, “my oldest boy Clay-Barry has trouble writing his name, has never read a book and can’t count beyond a hundred but thanks to the vision of Tony Blair and the much needed dumbing down of our education system he managed to get a first class honours degree in David Beckham Studies from the University of Stafford.”
“Really,” Gove raised his eyebrows, “and has he got a job?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snorted, “who’s going to employ someone with a degree in David Beckham Studies?”
“Aren’t you worried Kevin, “said Gove, “that in a recent major study of 24 developed nations Britain came 19th in literacy and 21st in numeracy?”
“No,” I replied, “because in terms of a proportion of our children who become graduates we rank 1st.”
“We also rank first in the table of unemployment amongst graduates,” he replied, “with 20% of them unable to get a job.”
“So what’s your solution Michael,” I asked, “a return to those dark days when higher education was the preserve of the intelligent and hardworking?”
“I just want to improve Britain’s education system,” Gove sighed, “and make passing exams mean something.”
“They do mean something Michael,” I explained, “they let young people who are not very bright or industrious, but pass their modules after endless re-sits and help from teachers, feel good about themselves – and the so-called meaningless certificates give children false hope that they might achieve something in life. In your brave new world people like my daughter Morgan-Marie will have their hopes and dreams stolen away from them.”
“How is Morgan-Marie getting on at school?” Gove asked.
“Quite well,” I told him, “she has still never read a book, she can’t spell and she can’t add up without a calculator, but with help from her teacher she did well in her modules at the eighth time of asking and was well on target for 10 A stars at GCSE until you announced your stupid changes.”
“Stupid changes?” Gove frowned.
“That’s right,” I snapped, “in maths she’s going to have to learn about ratios, proportion, rates of change, vectors, probability, quadratic equations and sine and cosines – and then she’s going to have to sit an exam and answer questions about them.”
“I see,” Gove looked confused.
“And in English she’s going to have to read rubbish like Shakespeare, English poetry and Hardy, as well as learn spelling, punctuation and grammar,” I raged, ”and then sit an exam and answer questions about it all.”
“Yes that’s the plan,” Gove replied.
“I’m telling you Michael,” I warned him, “you are well on the way to creating an iniquitous system where the more intelligent and hardworking you are the more chance you have of getting good grades in your exams.”
“Thank you,” he replied.
“It’s not meant as a compliment,” I snarled, “you have single-handedly destroyed Tony Blair’s dream of Britain having the highest proportion of semi-literate and ill-educated graduates in the developed world.”
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