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Gove – a price worth paying?

Michael Gove. Elicits strong reactions that name. From both hysterical anti-reform types as well from uncritical disciples of the #cultofGove

My own reaction? More a shrug of the shoulders with the odd outburst thrown in. He’s a mixed legacy. And I suspect history will judge him the same. His greatest success has been in convincing people that his sole mission is to raise standards, and that all his reforms have this ultimate goal in mind.

Personally, I don’t buy that line. I think some of his reforms have little to do with raising standards, and will in the long run prove corrosive. And intellectual curiosity, if nothing else, must lead one to question why so much of this structural change, to raise standards natch, seems to fit so very snugly with neo-Thatcherite politics.

Still, one is compelled to ask the question: so what?

For all that I think Gove gets wrong, he nonetheless is trying to get some things right. Initiating a full and frank exchange on our degraded curriculum, pointing out the injustice of grade inflation, rehabilitating the view that knowing stuff is important for its own sake (a view not shared by all his cult devotees): these strike me as of fundamental importance. Which means that one must at least consider whether endurance of the stuff that he gets wrong is not a price worth paying.

There will come a time when some future government will have to put right the damage wrought by certain of Gove’s actions. There is little doubt about it. Nonetheless, if that is the immediate price for developing a better curriculum and shaping a more rigorous learning culture, then is it not worth it?

Some will clearly believe not and will bray at the very suggestion. Angrily. Before hurling abuse at any who dare suggest otherwise. Myself? I’m not so sure. I want change. Some of the change that I want to see is similar to the change that Gove wants to see. In that sense, for those of a like mind, Gove is less a embodiment of the diabolical and more a potential ally.

Meaning that either I, or he, is a useful idiot. Suppose you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Private Privilege

One often hears the refrain that state schools should be more like private schools if they are to generate success. And not just from the usual ill-informed clich√© peddlers: it resides within the presumptions and pronunciations of all too many at the very top, too. Of course, when we hear that the local comprehensive should be more like private schools, this rarely means that plans are afoot to fund smaller class sizes, or build better facilities, or give staff and students longer holidays – no, it usually means something else, something fleeting, will-o’-the-wisp, but nonetheless relating, in some ill-defined fashion, to the educational milieu within which our students are nurtured. And in so much that that shifting concept expresses an aspiration for something different, something better, then for all its ambiguity it nonetheless has a kernel of truth to it.

Declaration of interest: I was lucky enough to attend a private school for a year or so at the age of eight. It was an MoD funded placement given, or so I was told, to offer stability after years of moving around and multiple school changes. (I should say from the outset, to preempt the lazy assumptions of all too many, that my Dad was a corporal, and of the four of us that I remember starting that year, none of our fathers were officers. Sad to say it, but if they were, we wouldn’t have been hanging around together.)

And I shall never cease to be grateful for this opportunity. It changed everything.

For example, it was at this school that I first had my ears opened to classical music, bombarding the senses as we all filed into church on a Saturday morning for an unapologetically high church service. It was here that I first sang in a choir, an assemblage of students of all ages, itself increasingly unusual, all of us singing (and reading) the complex and beautiful choral music that has stayed with me to this day. The church where we sang was a beautiful if slightly higgledy-piggledy-in-a-very-English-rural-church-kind-of-way affair, set amidst what appeared to a nostalgic mind to be the deepest forest (it wasn’t), with a little gravel path wandering up to a welcoming stone porch with an offset wooden door, framed by a humorously grand pair of faux-gothic columns.

It was also at this school that I sailed my first dinghy (the school having its own lakes) and went on my first camp (we were all enrolled in clubs – I took Beavers. Once put someone in the recovery position in 9 seconds. I’m still owed a Mars Bar by Mr [x] for that). It was here that I read my first full novel and wrote my first poem. It was here that I experienced my first art gallery, attended my first theatre performance, and first found my love for History – I vividly remember a trip to Hampton Court Palace, listening open-mouthed as the guide explained the legends of the Haunted Corridor, and the symbolism of the great Tapestries, and the intrigue and downfall surrounding Cardinal Wolsey.

It was here that I first experienced the Latin language, and learned of Greek gods, and studied Roman generals. It was here I first played hockey, and rugby, and American football, and archery, and even horse riding (alright, I exaggerate a touch on that one – I didn’t do it. But a couple of my mates in House did. Never fancied it, to be honest). It was here I learned to play chess, and draw in 3D, and (help) organise charity events, and put on public performances, and deal with (a very old school) male teacher, a thing foreign to me up until that point and a genuine source of anxiety before I joined, all the teachers I had ever experienced being female.

And all of that in just one year.

Yet it went far beyond the standard curriculum. It was also here that I was taught many disciplines that stay with me still, little things that we could never expect a state school to attempt: how to polish my shoes properly, and tie my tie correctly, and organise my belongings and possessions. In addition, the curriculum was not just about pursuit of the humanities and sciences: we boys learned skills necessary to complete general DIY tasks, and we were also taught to sew, since it was fully expected that as time went by it was not for the sewing lady (a lovely, kindly old woman whom I only ever saw sat down in her sewing chair) to fix our school clothes, but for us to see to it ourselves. In other words, the academic was situated within a wider framework of values which brought it into a coherent whole – of thrift, self-sufficiency, and pride in oneself.

The school, it should also be said, was set in beautiful grounds with woods and lakes, where we wiled away hours on end climbing trees and ‘making dens’ waiting for the bell to be rung for tea (this being after the homework hour in house, obviously). In addition, the school contained within it a magnificent country house (Georgian, or thereabouts), which was still used by the elder students in school as halls of residence, and around which we had numerous tours to learn about not only the families that had lived there, but also the meaning and provenance of the architecture on display.

In other words, this kid who had lived his life on army camps, and who would spend the rest of his school years in a council house in the north east, was exposed to high culture. And not only exposed to it, but completely immersed in it, day after day, as the backdrop and foreground within which our development took place. Here, aesthetics was not a cerebral pursuit for ageing dons – it permeated everything, and infused us with a sense of awe and humility that forced the eyes, even the soul, to look upwards in its educational pursuits. We were encouraged to reach for the stars, not future salary scales.

Why is this no doubt rose-tinted recounting of a single year of my schooling relevant?

Well, for me, it is precisely this that divides private education from state – this exposure to high culture, this instinctive commitment to and formation within a higher aesthetic. I’m well aware how pompous that might sound: I do not possess the words to explain it any other way. Nonetheless, I think it is true. And it can only ever be a source of disappointment that in having such experiences I was the lucky one, the unusual one, the one who should be grateful for such a start in life but who cannot seriously expect that others of a similar background could realistically all experience the same.

But, why not? Well, resources and money is a factor that cannot be overcome here, even though I do not seriously expect anything ever to be done about that. But it also goes a little deeper. In truth, the real tragedy is that all too many teachers in the state sector not only show an ignorance of this high culture (I readily confess to my own ignorance, too), but also display an overt hostility toward it. It is bad enough that so very few of our students in the comprehensive system get to experience the cultural and intellectual treasures passed on as a matter of course within parts of the private sector – it is lamentable that this can occasionally be because of the hangup of the teacher, rather than the (equally wrong, yet mostly ignored) inequalities of the system we have created.

Doubt me? Try saying comprehensive kids should be able to learn Latin in school and see what response you get.

I must say, in closing, that for all the evident admiration I have for the education I received at my private school, this does not mean that all aspects of it were superior. From what I recall, the classroom behaviour was much worse than any state comprehensive I’ve ever taught in, certainly worse than any I had attended, and bullying was a serious problem for some poor, unfortunate souls. I also firmly believe, so far as my memory serves me well, that the teaching was not as good as that in the state school I attended immediately after it, even if the curriculum was much more entertaining and challenging.

Still, as vital great teaching is and great teachers are, one cannot help but feel that that until we naturally and routinely raise our sights and try to capture those higher aesthetic ideals, to embed them within our schools and the culture we shape within them, then our kids in comprehensives, for all their high grades and multiple certificates, will remain culturally poorer than their more privileged peers.

Education and Social Mobility


The good news is that we now know more about the pupil-level strategies that will close the social class gap. The challenge is to make sure they are used in the classroom.’ Estelle Morris, MP

Schools should be engines of social mobility, places where the democratisation of knowledge helps vanquish the accidents of birth.’ Michael Gove, MP

‘It [a more dynamic society] is the impulse that lies behind our education reforms, including the pupil premium. Education is critical to our hopes of a fairer society.’ Nick Clegg, MP


To which I reply: b*ll*cks, basically. Education is not about social mobility. I mean, it can also have that happy consequence, of course, but that is not what it fundamentally is about. Nor, indeed, is that what it is fundamentally for.

And thank goodness for that, quite frankly. As I will explain.

But to start with, the point is that too much of the modern hand-wringing approach toward education gets this wrong. Really wrong. Since education has long since become a Royal Rumble for the CHECK OUT HOW CONCERNED I AM ABOUT THE POOR crew, so the aim of helping the poor be clever enough to get a job that means they are no longer poor appears to have become this week’s educational Nirvana

Govian revolutionaries are particularly good at this, and very much resemble the liberal left when they do so (no surprise there). Determined to display their compassionate credentials, they commandeer the moral outrage of the firebrand to present their reforms as self-evidently enlightened because self-evidently about helping-poor-people-actually-get-a-job-more-like-ours-for-a-change. The intellectual furnaces from which this framework is forged are not much into the pursuit of intellect for the sake of human flourishing and expression – no, it’s about social mobility. Or, about getting a better job. Or, having whatever it is that your future employers might want you to have.

Call me a desperate romantic, but I rather fancy that somewhere, both John Keating and Crocker-Harris are crying. On one another’s shoulder. Whilst reading Browning.

And so one begins to whiff the rotting carcus of Education, now little more than a host for the parasitical feasting of a legion of wonkeries telling us all how to make sure our kids are more employable. Education herself, once the goddess we worshiped and adored as life giving and realising, has been subjugated by the new god Money, and the maximization of our chances of being able to accumulate it.

What use within a marketised utilitarianism for appeals to refinement of intellect? Once we justify education through appeal to future life outcomes, we retreat from the front line and spend the rest of our lives desperately trying to convince our victors why our kids should not just be learning whatever it is that we finally decide 21st century skills happen to be. Or, to quote: ‘Overcoming educational inequality is a huge challenge. However, we know the cost of doing nothing. It’s bad for social mobility and ultimately bad for Britain’s economy.’ Take a bow, Mr Twigg.

Dear Lord, Spare me the cold utility of the educationalist who wishes to justify intellectual aggrandizement with a costs benefits analysis of future earning potential. Amen.

Schubert? Blake? van Gogh? Died in poverty. Cry me a river. Clearly failed by the system. Don’t know how their teachers sleep at night.

So, we have the order of the day: let’s help poorer kids get clever because then they can all be richer than they would otherwise have been. Which means they’ll be more socially mobile. Which means the country will make more money. Which is what education is all about, n’est-ce pas? The demands of the market are uppermost, but the new morality is about helping the poorest cope more effectively with those demands. And if you think this will not percolate down to what we decide it is that they need to know, then I have some fresh air in a bottle here at just ¬£5 a go – interested?

As such, the cold logic of the market utilitarian frames the education debate, and those who would argue that kids should study Latin or theology are destined to lose. Not that they won’t sometimes be agreed with – the revolutionaries will often say they should have such opportunities because their more socially mobile peers do – but they cannot really give good reasons why. Which means they will not try especially hard to ensure it happens. Which is also why, for a great many, it won’t. Funnily enough, the culture in which those socially mobile peers operate very much know why. And study such subjects accordingly. But then, they don’t go on about social mobility all that much.

Which brings us to an impasse, in which those toiling against the shallow moralism of the ‘reformers’ face unfavourable odds the magnitude of which would give a Rorke’s Drift veteran the shakes. Still, in the face of the BUT WON’T YOU THINK OF THE CHILDREN (NARROWLY DEFINED AS THEIR FUTURE EARNING POTENTIAL) brigade, the line must be held. Education is about making everyone more clever than they previously were. It is about giving everyone the intellectual refinement to engage successfully with the world around them. It is about helping in the pursuit of the Good Life, to succeed in the art of living well. Or, for those of us for whom zeal originates within metaphysics rather than the economist’s spreadsheet, it is about using what was given to reflect on those things for which it was made: ‘God wouldn’t have given us an intellect if he didn’t want us to think straight.’

To conclude, we might as well fire a parting shot: the very notion of social mobility is deeply problematic. The original Red Tory surge saw that, just as the Blue Labour counterblast did too. That for too many this is the sole criterion upon which to advance education reform is a worry. Not least because its natural logic is to diminish standards, not build them.

So, as a teacher, you’ll forgive me for not planning into my teaching strategies to ensure the improved social mobility of those who sit before me each day. That’s not my job. My job, indeed my goal, is to help children be cleverer when they walk out the door than they were when they walked through it. I’ll let the social mobility bit take care of itself. And fire off the odd salvo in futile protest.