Education Reform Must Not Be Abandoned

The Spectator, July 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

Education Reform Must Not Be Abandoned


During his time as Education Secretary, Michael Gove would often have occasion to quote a passage of Machiavelli: 'There is nothing more difficult, more doubtful of success or more dangerous than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order.'

In the end, it seems, Gove's enemies triumphed. They shouted more loudly than those who benefited from the new schools, and persuaded the Prime Minister that his Education Secretary was losing an argument -- so he should walk the plank. The teachers' unions succeeded in posing as the voice of teachers, even though only a fraction of teachers voted for the strikes earlier this month. Opinion polls that sample the views of non-parents were another factor in Gove's removal. As was the hostility of Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister.

It was never a fair fight because those who stand to benefit from Gove's reforms are those with the least voice in society. His vision was truly a radical one -- that the poor should have the same choice in education that today only the rich can afford. The free schools he introduced were most needed in council estates where sink schools were the norm. Gove was never going for an easy political hit; his was a long-term battle to improve the life chances of the poorest. But the poor tend not to interest political strategists, because they tend not to vote.

Gove had been planning school reform years before he took the job. Still, he perhaps underestimated how noisy his detractors could be and the extent to which their opposition could affect the Prime Minister. After his departure, Downing Street briefed journalists that he was moved because he was 'losing the argument'. It's a curious excuse: voters asked if they like academies and free schools may be sceptical as only a few have experience of them. But ask parents who live in poor areas if they should have a new school, and a majority will say yes.

It's odd: David Cameron is famously paranoid about his Eton education, and his dependence on people like him who went to the same school. Michael Gove was quite right when he said it was 'preposterous' that so many alumni from a single school should be in No10 . Cameron never forgave him for pointing this out, but Gove was passing comment on the English education system. It insists on rigour for those at the best private schools, but less is expected from state school pupils - leading to a yawning attainment gap between the two systems. So the best-educated go on to achieve the most.

The Prime Minister and his coterie embody the problem. Gove was out to fix it, fighting a battle on behalf of the state school pupils  -a battle that even Thatcher shied away from. Cameron has now decided that he'd rather this battle was not fought. His decision to abandon from this battle and move Gove to become Chief Whip puts party before pupils. It raises new questions over his own commitment to the social justice agenda. And as our political editor James Forsyth says in the above video, it makes sure more Etonians will dominate public life in years to come. …

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