From The Editor - Give praise where it's due and everyone wins

15th February 2013 at 00:00

The relationship between the Vatican and the Department for Education is clearly not what it could be. If only the Pope's people had tipped it the wink that Benedict XVI was going to hang up his mitre, the U-turn over exam reform could have been delayed by a week and buried by the news of the first papal resignation in 600 years.

As it was, Michael Gove was subjected to a barrage of negative headlines. His decision to scrap his proposed English Baccalaureate Certificate and not overhaul the exam market (pages 8-9) was caricatured as a cynical gambit, a tactical setback and a humiliating climbdown. It's difficult to see how it could be all three, but when has inconsistency ever impeded derision?

The jeering from Labour was understandable; it's what a parliamentary opposition is for. But political theatre is one thing, policy evaluation another. Do Mr Gove's amended plans deserve support and was the frosty response he received from most of the teaching community warranted? The answers to those questions have to be a qualified "Yes" and "No".

There are some obvious problems. The timetable for change is challenging. Redesigning the curriculum in less than two years will be tough. It probably isn't wise to overhaul A levels and GCSEs concurrently, or to stagger implementation of the latter, thereby soldiering on with two grading systems for 12 months.

The circle of more rigorous exams sat by all abilities remains unsquared, too, although additional papers for the brightest may provide wiggle room. And historians are furious at the proposed primary canter from the Stone Age, through kings, queens and castles to James II without so much as a mention of Queen Victoria, Hitler or Gladstone's fallen women.

But frankly there is far more to applaud than Mr Gove's critics concede. He and the Lib Dems should get credit for ditching plans to create a new qualification in favour of reforming the existing one. Their proposed curriculum changes may have upset historians but most are sensible and relatively modest; even citizenship has been reprieved.

Most importantly, the proposals to take account of the progress of all pupils - not just those lurking on the borderline between D and C - and to judge schools on a broader "best of eight" rather than the current five GCSEs are excellent and a good deal fairer. All in all, they're not bad suggestions, despite the question marks and rough edges. So the cool response from most of the profession is a tad surprising.

Politicians aren't by nature sensitive souls. Generally, they expect slightly less sympathy than urban foxes or Romanian knacker's yards with frozen food contracts. Nor do they tend to act sensitively. This government's idea of relationship-building certainly owes more to Molotov than Mandela. Trust is scarcer than beef in a Findus lasagne.

But when it does something right, shouldn't it be acknowledged? Does the profession get anywhere by being permanently ungenerous? Surely even cynics can concede that well-targeted magnanimity has tactical advantages. Or do teachers, most of whom have dealt with the odd delinquent at one time or another, really think that constant resentment is the best way to win friends and influence people?

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