Getting to grips with Gove…

Here Simon Partridge explores the recent debates surrounding Gove and elite education:

Michael Gove MP – Radical Petit-Bourgeois

In his recent article in the New Statesman [14-20 February 2014], of all places, the Coalition Education Minister nails his colours firmly to the mast, which the NS on the front cover says “lays down the gauntlet to Tristram Hunt”. The challenge is now unmistakable and explicit. What are we on the “progressive” side of British politics to make of Gove?

I don’t find that an easy question to answer but I’m going to have a go. Once again it seems the left [as broadly defined] has been outflanked, à la Thatcher, by a radical from petit-bourgeois origins [Gove was adopted at 4 months old by an Aberdeen fish processor [described as Labour-sympathetic on Wiki] who did well for himself, and Gove ended up in a private co-ed day school, the prestigious Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen]. Gove is both intelligent and articulate and it will not be enough to dismiss or ridicule him.

Perhaps aware of Hunt’s background as an academic historian, Gove starts his piece with a historical survey of “public schools” [no mention of prep schools in the article] going back to the foundation of Winchester in 1382! Gove is evidently an “enthusiastic admirer of the education these [public] schools provide”, praising the Kynastons’ article as “demonstrating, beyond challenge, the[ir] wonderfully liberating education”. He conveniently omits the lengthy authoritarian, sadistic and games-dominated ethos in most public schools, which wasn’t really challenged until the 1980s. As Churchill put it in 1930: “boys were flogged until they bled freely, while the rest sat quaking, listening to their screams”. How liberating! However, Gove does criticise such schools as being the “preserve of the wealthy” – hardly surprising when they cost some £30,000+ per annum.

He then observes, surely rightly, that, “We have one of the most stratified and segregated education systems in the developed world, perpetuating inequality and holding our nation back…we are clearly wasting talent on an unforgiveable scale.” While one can ask a follow-up question “talent for what?”, I find it hard to question the sentiment from a progressive viewpoint. And to add vigour to his argument Gove gives it the force of “moral imperative”, revealing his belief in a “meritocratic society”. It seems to me we have strayed rather far from a traditional Toryism in which “people knew their place” and elite hierarchies were not necessarily frowned on.

As the radical, even revolutionary visionary, Gove puts it: “As matters rest, children from poorer homes are being denied the opportunity to fulfil themselves, and to contribute to our national renaissance. So matters cannot be allowed to rest.” [my emphasis]

Gove then embarks on an exercise in practical political reform, drawing lessons he says “from the history of previous attempts to make opportunity more equal in Britain”. The answer in his view is not “abolition” but the spreading of the “public school model” without “diluting their character”. For Gove the academies and free school programme initiated by Blair and Adonis have given “state schools the independence over character, curricula and governance long enjoyed by public

schools”, but with the advantage, so he claims, of being democratic, inclusive, comprehensive.

Gove says that via this programme 16 formerly fee-paying schools have entered the state system since 2010 [since there are 2,500+ private schools this leaves a long way to go], and has provided opportunities for some public schools to create models of themselves in the state sector, naming Eton, Brighton College and Westminster. On this very slim basis Gove claims the “Berlin Wall between state and private schools is crumbling”. It appears that Gove’s rhetoric has got the better of the reality on the ground.

Unless Gove grasps the basic inequality of resources in our education system whereby the private sector spends two, three or more times [for boarding public schools] per pupil, Gove’s bold dream of “making English education truly democratic” will remain largely a figment of his imagination. The danger here is that the lack of resources – which in the state sector can only come from taxation – will lead to a sort of backdoor privatisation of the state-system. Antony Seldon, head master of Wellington, has already argued that wealthier parents in the state sector should, subject to a means test, pay fees. While some of those managing “free schools” are arguing that they should be able to make profits, and thereby, presumably, draw in private capital [this has happened in Sweden where a chain of 14 schools went bust in May 2013 leaving some 10,000 students without schooling – http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/may/31/free-schools-education ].

However, whether by design or accident [the law of unintended consequences], the Gove reforms might well threaten some or many of the weaker prep schools. His rhetoric of equality between the private and the state sectors will probably unsettle them, as will his talk of “reactionaries in the private sector”, unwilling to co-operate with the state sector.

Is Gove’s radical rhetoric worth a row of beans? Quite frankly I’m not sure, but one thing I am pretty certain about, is that the no one in Miliband’s Labour party [with the possible exception of Barry Sheerman] – so far – has given serious, public thought as to how the now undeniable hegemony of private sector education [and more specifically the public schools educating less than 1%] in our national life can be effectively challenged. For me, motivated by a desire to put an end to the unnecessary traumas of early boarding [and also a desire for a more equitable and fulfilling society], I would rather explore the possibilities which Gove’s ambitious rhetoric has opened up, than demonise Gove and dismiss him out of hand. Evidently, those who have the best interests of children at heart will need to make alternative policy proposals, including the abolition of early boarding.

Simon Partridge

February 2014

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