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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Sunday 1st July 2012

My latest Spectator column

I appeared on Newsnight last week to discuss Michael Gove’s proposal to replace GCSEs with O-levels and CSEs and there was near universal agreement among the “educationalists” present that moving to a “two tier” system was a retrograde step. They acknowledged that some children would benefit from doing O-levels rather than GCSEs. But such gains would be more than offset by the harm inflicted on those children forced to do CSEs. Telling a child of 14 that he or she isn’t bright enough to do O-levels would be an irreparable blow to their self-esteem. Much better to have a unitary system in which all children do the same exams, even if that means they have to be quite easy in order to be fully “inclusive”.

Inclusive. It’s one of those ghastly, politically correct words that have survived the demise of New Labour. Schools have got to be “inclusive” these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from Dyslexia to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels the government will have to repeal the Equality Act because any exam that isn’t “accessible” to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be “elitist” and therefore forbidden by Harman’s Law. (See note at foot of this column.)

There are so many reasons to embrace these proposal it’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, it’s already possible for children to take the equivalent of O-levels. They’re called IGCSEs. Problem is, with a few exceptions, you can only do them at fee-paying schools. It’s one of the reasons private schools are so heavily over-represented at Russell Group universities. The difference between the two-tier system we have now and the one Gove is proposing to replace it with is that, in the new system, children from all walks of life will be able to take the more rigorous exams not just those with rich parents.

But the thing that really annoys me is this idea that children who end up doing CSEs will never recover from the humiliation. Are British schoolchildren really so fragile that the “stigma” of not doing O-levels will cause permanent damage? The sages assembled round the table on Newsnight were all nodding their heads in agreement on this point – it was so obvious it didn’t require any evidence to back it up.

In fact, it’s complete balls, a piece of intellectual flotsam that has followed in the wake of the giant squid that is the therapy industry. As the sociologist Frank Furedi points out in Wasted, his attack on New Labour’s education policy, the view that a teacher’s main responsibility is to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next has been replaced by the belief that teachers are essentially therapists whose job is to try and correct the harmful effects on children of bourgeois society. It’s that view – that teachers are “enablers” or “facilitators”, rather than anything that hints at didacticism – that underlies the all-must-win-prizes philosophy that’s so prevalent in state schools.

How do I know this? Why am I so confident that children are robust enough to cope with a “two tier” system? Because I was one of those children who was told at 14 that he had to do CSEs. Admittedly, not in every subject – I did O-levels in English Language, English Literature, Maths and History – but in French, Physics, Art and Drama. Not only that, but I failed most of them, too. I managed to scrape a C in English Literature and a Grade 1 in Drama and failed the rest.

Now, admittedly, I did feel slightly knocked back by this. I remember telling my mother that I wasn’t “academically bright” – which is middle class code for “thick as a plank”. But after a three-month spell in Israel working on Kibbutz (which turned me into a lifelong Zionist), I decided to go back to school, retake my O-levels, do three A-levels and apply to Oxford. In other words, I didn’t see failure or the fact that I’d been labelled a dunce as a reason to give up, but as a reason to try harder. If I’d done GCSEs instead – and, in today’s money, my terrible performance would have netted me eight A*s – I would have continued coasting along, gone straight into the Sixth Form and ended up at Oxford Poly.

So three cheers for Michael Gove. And let’s hope the Prime Minister backs him all the way.


Some people have misunderstood this paragraph. I'm using "inclusive" in the broad sense to mean a dumbed down, one-size-fits-all curriculum, rather than the narrow sense of providing equal access to mainstream education for people with disabilities. I've absolutely nothing against inclusion in that sense. Rather, what I'm against is the way in which opponents of education reform often invoke the low intelligence of some (non-SEN) children as a reason not to introduce more intellectual rigour into a national curriculum that's meant to be fully inclusive. That's the context in which I use the word "troglodyte". It's supposed to conjure up the fictional, cave-dwelling creatures from the movie One Million Years BC – someone whom it's plainly ridiculous to try and tailor the national curriculum for. It's not supposed to be a synonym for a child with SEN. Indeed, a moment's reflection should make this clear. After all, I'm trying to point up the absurdity of Harman's position and if I had intended "troglodyte" to mean "children with SEN" then Harman's position would seem sympathetic rather than absurd.

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Comments page 1 of 4 - 88 post(s)

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Steve Jodwin on 01-07-2012 21:19:

But the problem is that not everyone is as resilient and driven as you were at that crucial age. Additionally, I don't think everyone will have the chance to travel, find themselves, build resolve and get back on the bike.

Whilst I agree we have stop being so precious with kids and get them to toughen up, I don't think we should ignore that for some (may be even many) will be demotivated and disillusioned if they are channelled in to CSE equivalents which do carry a stigma.

(from someone whose CSE grade 1 in Tech Drawing still grates as should have been entered for an O level in it).

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Henry Path on 02-07-2012 00:03:

Also, not everyone will have a rich and well-known father to pull strings for them. What an appalling attitude, Toby, when wheelchair ramps and having to make allowances for children who have educational difficulties are simply things for you to castigate, sigh at, and then use as an opportunity to have a tedious and ironically childish side-swipe at the perceived political correctness people of your over-pampered class perpetually bridle at.
I expect the reason you wouldn't want every pupil to be told they were valuable is because like many in your position who have scrabbled to achieve this dubiously-elevated status - despite all the enormous advantages your background can provide - you are terrified there are thousands of people who given half a chance could do a much better job.
It's instructive that you cite a lack of evidence yet for the millionth time dribble a load of invented ridiculousness out to attempt to back up your predictably biased viewpoint. I've worked in a school - not just wanted the ego-trip of having my name on the monthly newsletter - with some of the most challenging kids you could imagine. And I like to think I've helped them; maybe in tiny ways, but making a kid who's been told they're useless realise they're NOT is a brilliant thing. Kids YOU'D call illiterate troglodytes. You never really thought you were thick, Toby. It's interesting you told your mum that rather than the other way around.
You shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a school if you only want to include the "right sort" of kids. I'll be fighting against "free" schools until they're gone.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Quinn on 02-07-2012 00:08:

Congratulations on your O-level retakes. How about your CSE retakes?

Unmentioned? Obviously, since you're so dim you've missed the point and countered with an irrelevant anecdote, the refuge of the blinkered ideologue.

You'd wear your smugness better if you could spell poly.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Teacher on 02-07-2012 00:16:

I'm afraid I only skim-read your "article", but can I point out that it is the Equality Act, not Equalities Act; and that you mean 'Poly' not 'Polly' as the shorthand for Polytechnic?

I fear for the suggestion of bringing back O-Levels if you and your writing are a benchmark for their quality.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Twitterer on 02-07-2012 00:23:

"Schools have got to be “inclusive” these days. That means wheelchair ramps..."

Really - you'd like to do away with those? Under the auspice of ridding ourselves of 'inclusivity' "one of those ghastly, politically correct words that have survived the demise of New Labour.?' You want to be more elitist and that means excluding the disabled? Wow. Of course you could claim I'm quoting you out of context. Only I'm not: you cite disabled ramps in a list of things you regard as absurd PC nods to inclusivity. You'd rather these kids were home-educated? By whom and paid for by whom, I wonder? Excluded from normal school because they have the affront to be unable to walk? You really are nasty, aren't you.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by JackR on 02-07-2012 01:53:

By what reasoning would your original performance have merited 8 A*s? Clearly, not the case.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Toby Young on 02-07-2012 02:39:

Thanks for the corrections. Now made to the original article.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Mrs Smith on 02-07-2012 08:01:

You were very lucky that you had such enlightened parents and the time for reflection to enable you to retake your exams. I know it might be difficult for you to empathise, as empathy is a skill that appears to be beneath you, but not every one had your opportunities. If you think that you did it all by yourself and because you did it everyone else should to then I do worry that delusion rather evidence is what you have used to argue your point of view. At least Mr Gove has one like minded soul to defend his ill thought out ideas.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Keren David on 02-07-2012 08:20:

If you don't mean to imply that you want to exclude disabled and SEN children, then why mention them? You'd improve your whole argument by editing out that sentence (or at least making your meaning clearer)
A lot of kids that you call troglodyte will have undiagnosed special needs, they may not have the advantage of middle class parents (or any parents), they may be good at one subject but not others. Do we write them off at 11 or 14 or keep the door open as long as possible, entering them for foundation level GCSEs in the hope that they will achieve a 'C' pass and move on in life feeling as though they have achieved something. That's what the current system (flawed though it is) tries to achieve.

There are also a lot of kids who aren't 'troglodyte' but do find the current system a struggle. The ones that get Bs, Cs and Ds for GCSE. What will happen to them in the new system? How do we improve education for them?

Michael Gove is absolutely correct that he current system needs to be reformed. Controlled assessments are a bad joke, the modules and retakes only increase pressure on pupils and do little to help them learn. But why look backwards to O levels and CSEs? We need a forward looking education system, not one based on the supposed high standards of the 1950s. Why not have a general matriculation paper in English, Maths and Science at 16 and then offer a wide range of subjects post 16, some academic, others vocational, some a blend of both?
I don't think your terrible performance would have netted 8 A*s nowadays. I also don't think it would have been a disaster if you'd gone to Oxford Poly.The problem with education policy is that it tends to be designed by the exam passers for the kids they deem the brightest, and that can diminish the potential of everyone else.
I went to a grammar school, took O levels, was bored stiff, failed two of my A levels and escaped education to journalism as soon as I could. My husband failed his 11 plus, took CSEs and some O levels, went to the grammar school at sixth form, got into Oxford University. Selection didn't work for us. Let's not kid ourselves it was the perfect system.
Sorry, this has turned into a longer rant than I intended! Good luck with your new school and I am sure you will work hard to raise the life chances of all kinds of children who attend.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by London teacher on 02-07-2012 09:52:

You've missed the point, Toby. Michael Gove did too, when I raised the actual objection at a conference, but I suspect he did so intentionally, whereas I'm not sure you have understood.

To clarify:

The main objection is not that O-levels and CSEs would fail to be inclusive, and that this is axiomatically wrong. If it were, your offensive rants would at least be rebutting in the manner of the point.

The issue is that with a two tier system somebody has to choose which exam kids take, and often that choice has to be made a significant time period before the exams start (to allow them to follow the exam course). I work with kids in a very deprived area, and I have the highest expectations of them, but they start secondary school significantly behind their peers and need time to catch up. Some of that catch up happens at ks3, and some at ks4. At what point do you want me to predict what progress kids will make in two years? If I get it wrong (either way) I destroy their chances - a kid who improves rapidly in year 10 is stuck on a CSE course, a kid who doesn't is left struggling and failing at the O-level.

The benefit of a one-tier system is that nobody has to predict anything about a child's potential. I'm a good teacher, and I know my kids well, but I don't think I can predict the future. That's one of the brilliant things about teaching - kids constantly surprise you.

So make the top levels harder, if you seriously think they're too easy (but maybe sit down and look at one before you make assumptions). I would like to hear an actual argument about why we need two-tiers. I've yet to hear one my year 8 debating society couldn't destroy.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by maggieb on 02-07-2012 12:22:

"Too often, I have to contend with critics arguing that high expectations are "elitist" because they alienate most children."

Really? Whilst it is sadly true that there are some teachers who have blinkered ideas about their pupils' abilities and potential, this remark has the same whiff of urban myth about it as the notion that state schools teachers don't teach the time tables.

As for the wheelchair remark, you should have edited it out yourself before it became an embarrassment to you.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Giloes Bradshaw on 02-07-2012 14:06:

Why not have one exam but make it contain questions that test a wider range of abilities? Make it almost impossible to obtain the highest grades.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Not a teacher on 02-07-2012 14:08:

The problem is that you're still talking about "the absurdity of Harman's position" without demonstrating that it actually is Harman's position. You're using "Harriet Harman" as shorthand for a set of views and policies which in many cases are not the views and policies of Harriet Harman. As it is, "Harman's position" is not only "absurd", it's non-existent. You're right to get annoyed when people misrepresent your own views - it's really annoying when people do that. But you'd be on stronger ground if you read better, thought more critically and wrote better yourself.

Karen David
Posted by Toby Young on 02-07-2012 14:09:

Thanks Karen. I'm not arguing for a return to selective education – though I don't think it should be against the law to set up new grammar schools either (as it is at present). My main concern is to raise standards for as many children as possible – and expecting 80% or so to take O-levels or something like them (IGCSEs?) would be one way of doing that. I accept that the more vocational qualification the 20% are doing has to be extremely robust and highly respected if such a system is to work and I'm not in favour of allowing any children to drop core academic subjects. We describe the WLFS as a grammar school for all and, in an ideal world, that's what I'd like every state school to be.

London Teacher's Comment
Posted by Toby Young on 02-07-2012 14:12:

Don't you have to decide at the beginning of KS4 whether your pupils will have to do Foundation or Higher GCSEs? In which case, we already have a two-tier system and your objection to O-levels/CSEs fails.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Simon Rogers on 02-07-2012 14:14:

Even after editing, you list wheelchair access and "Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from Dyslexia to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy." along with "the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain)" as a list of things for which you hold in contempt as "inclusive." You are a revolting man who simply has no idea at all what inclusiveness and disability means, and I hold the rest of your argument in contempt as a result.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Rafael on 02-07-2012 15:26:

And yet, Toby, you still have 'wheelchair ramps' in your list of these ridiculous inclusive things you so despise.

This says more about you than anything I've ever seen you write, and that you haven't so much as referred to it in this 'defense' of your article speaks volumes more.

A few thousand wheelchair using teachers and (best estimate from the charity Whizz-Kidz) 70,000 wheelchair using children in the country just now, gently increasing in number over time. Would you really have it that each and every one of us is neither able to contribute to, nor benefit from, a proper education at our local school?

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Ian on 02-07-2012 16:48:

To be quite frank, if you think the existence of wheelchair ramps and special provisions for dyslexia are "ghastly", then the only thing you should be doing in a school is filling in some of the obvious gaps in your education.

Hardly surprising that Toby Young has such strong opposition to provision for the disabled. He's got form in this area. Before West London Free School took it over, Palingswick House was home to a number of community charities, and a school for severely disabled children, who had to find alternative locations or get turfed out onto the street. I expect the sight of a wheelchair ramp reminds Toby of what he has done.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Napoleon of Rhyme1 on 02-07-2012 17:26:

"– and, in today’s money, my terrible performance would have netted me eight A*s -"
Um. No, it wouldn't. Getting C grades at GCSE is pitifully easy, which is why it is so very depressing that getting just 5 of them is used as a measure of success, as if it was in any way meainingful; but it's still pretty impressive to get that many A* grades.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Frank Jeffries on 02-07-2012 17:27:

I assume you don't read comments, especially on an article that has trolled so many people across the political spectrum, but I feel compelled to say: your footnote doesn't actually change anything.

You cannot rail against 'inclusiveness' in an field where the term 'inclusive' has a very specific meaning (relating to disability & SEN) that you well understand, illustrate your point with comments about wheel-chair ramps, then backtrack mumbling 'Oh, I didn't mean that kind of 'inclusive' I meant some other, non-standard, only-in-my-head meaning of the word.'

You seem to have unconsciously expressed something from your psyche that has worried even yourself: good. Just because your many enemies call you on something it doesn't mean you are actually right - in this case it seems you have some underlying issue with disability that, as the founder of a state-funded school, you probably need to address.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Catherine f on 02-07-2012 18:07:

So presumably in your free school you will not allow disabled people and ramps as that goes against your ideals? I'm all for rigour and going for the highest possible attainment in education but no two tier systems & please lets not exclude people because they are disabled.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by shirley on 02-07-2012 21:26:

I hate to burst your bubble of self righteous 'if I can do it' but if you failed your CSEs back in the day you'd be equally failing your GCSEs at todays standard. write yourself as a complete idiot with your comments.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by ML Pace on 02-07-2012 21:52:

Nice try, but it doesn't fly.

If you didn't mean SEN kids, you wouldn't have mentioned the need to repeal the Equality Act in the same sentence.

As the parent of an extremely intelligent but completely unable to handle the set-up of 'normal' exams Asperger's Syndrome child, I can't express strongly enough the revulsion at your comments and the pathetic attempt to then say: 'oh it wasn't what I meant' when the context is extremely clear that this is exactly what you meant.

May you never have to tread the path these children trudge on daily.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Blobity on 02-07-2012 22:11:

A bad workman blames his tools. A bad writer blames his readers. If people aren't getting what you're saying, perhaps your elite education didn't leave you with much in the way of literary communication skills. Time to reassess whether you're a suitable role model for your future educational model, bring you in line with the rest of the UK.

Re: My latest Spectator column
Posted by Stephen Wigmore on 03-07-2012 01:20:

Mr Young,
I am a strong supporter of both yourself, free schools and Michael Gove. But please remove your offensive language about disabled children. Referring to wheelchair ramps as "ghastly" is offensive and ridiculous. You have no need to insult those suffering with disabilities to make your point. Nor ridicule modest and important attempts to include them in mainstream society and education. This is unworthy of you. Please rephrase yourself and find some way of making your, generally, sensible point without being so gratuitously insulting to disabled children, people, and those who love and care for them.

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