“Tell me which candidate does not deserve the A-level they achieved today”. This was the reaction of Jim Knight, Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Learners when critics suggested that a combination of grade inflation and dumbing down made this year’s A level results even less meaningful than last year’s.
It is worth analysis, that reaction; “which candidate did not deserve the A level they achieved”. First, however, who is Jim Knight? That is no rhetorical device, by the way – I had never heard of him before he spouted this nonsense.
A bit of research reminds me that he is the one who scraped into Dorset South by 153 votes in 2001 as a result of a fix-up (so it was said) between Labour and the Lib Dems. He is one of those nodding dog nobodies who owes his position to quiet loyalty to the party.
He has a few things in his favour which differentiate him from many in his party. He is not stupid (or, at least, he went to Cambridge, which suggests something between the ears). He was one of the few Labour MPs who increased his majority in the 2005 election, which implies that someone in Dorset appreciates him (although the conduct of his rather strange Conservative opponent must have helped). His few rebellions in the Commons include the vote on ID cards which is a point in his favour. He had a life before Westminster. He probably actually believes much of what he says on his party’s behalf. His stint as Mayor of Frome, however, probably represents the moment when his abilities and his position were in harmony.
And now he is Schools Minister in the inelegantly named Department for Children, Schools and Learners (how appropriate that Ed Balls heads a department whose name has six words where three would do), and called upon to justify the fact that almost everyone got an A in almost every subject (not quite – that is the target for 2010, I think).
A difficult one this, for a relatively honest man (“relatively” because the expression honest Labour minister is an oxymoron – you don’t get on in New Labour by telling the truth). There is no denying that A levels get easier every year – by two grades since 1998, according to an education research unit at Durham University, rising to three grades in maths. Universities and employers are having to give remedial teaching in basic literacy and numeracy. Examination boards and schools join with the government in a subliminal conspiracy to boost the grades and give the illusion that things are getting better.
Ed Balls, Knight’s boss at the Department, has had a ten-year apprenticeship as bag-carrier to Gordon Brown, and is well versed in the business of spinning golden answers out of dross. If the facts really cannot be twisted into a suitable shape for media consumption, Balls just lies – see his assertion that the CBI approved of the pension raid, and his speedy retraction when this was proved false. A decent man, perhaps, corrupted by the company he has kept.
The government can hardly admit that standards are falling year on year. Jim Knight would perhaps rather not join his colleagues in simply lying, as taught by the Campbell-Mandelson School of Political Dissimulation. His gobbledygook answer must be looked at in this context.
“Tell me which candidate does not deserve the A-level they achieved today”. Well, of course, most of them deserved the grades they were awarded. The pupils did not set the targets, they just had to reach them. Some are brighter than others. Some worked, others did not. Some were well coached in jumping through the hoops, others less so. Their just deserts, however, are not the point.
Let us take an analogy. Suppose a pony club decided that more of the entrants ought to come away from the show with prizes. Where there is presently one rosette for first, second and third place, they might hand out several at each level – red for the majority, blue for not falling off too often and yellow for turning up.. They could lower the jumps a bit, ignore the finer points of dressage, overlook the stricter grooming requirements and so on. Most of the entrants would have nice rosettes to stick on their walls, and the pony club could boast of it – but the standards would plummet and no-one would have a clue who was really the best. It would not take long for that to work through to national competition level. But tell me which entrant does not deserve the rosette they won today?
This trick of rejecting criticism of the mass by a challenge to identify the individual has wider uses. You say that the Government is institutionally dishonest. Tell me which member of the Parliamentary Labour Party is dishonest.
W S Gilbert had the answer to that one in the Mikado:
There’s Tut-Tut-Tut and Whatshisname, and also You-Know-Who.
The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you.
… but naming them is not the point. If you got rid of the ones responsible for Formula 1, for mis-representing the Iraqi threat, for bribing Saudi businessmen, for selling the Railtrack grannies down the river, for hitting the pension “losers”, [continue ad infinitum], New Labour would remain institutionally corrupt.
It really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list
They’d none of them be missed, they’d none of them be missed.
Knight’s fatuous answer was actually as dishonest as any attempt to deny that the A level is being debased.