One of my closest friends was in school with Michael Gove. He remarked to me a few years back ‘he is not the man I knew’. I’ve only met Gove once myself, and he seemed nice enough. I am of course reassured that, in his plans to sell of British schools to the French (among others) he will (in his own words) “make sure that extremist organisations, or people who have a dark agenda, are prevented…” from running them. Therefore, we can be confident that Hogwarts will not, after all, be in the hands of Voldemort.
However, he has been speaking to Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn’s charity, which emphasises social and emotional progress over academic testing and the use of simple breathing exercises to boost learning power.
His plans are estimated to cost £1.8 billion.
Crucially, he is claiming that this will all boost the chances of pupils from poorer backgrounds reaching top universities.
Michael Gove, I beg to differ. Experimental schools have never proven to be effective in helping those from deprived backgrounds. Where they have worked, they have worked for the rich, who can afford to compensate later for any deficiencies. Moreover, they tend to face much stronger resistance in deprived communities: after all, if you live in a ‘bad’ area, you are most likely to want the same kind of education for your children as those in ‘good’ areas are getting, not some experimental model imported from France, Sweden or the USA.
Just as importantly, in a time of massive national deficit, this is not the moment to be spending £1.8 billion on an educational experiment which may or may not work. Remembering that experiments, generally, don’t.
I have absolutely no doubt that Michael Gove is a good man, who desires good for the people of this country. But his innate goodness is not enough to make a bad idea into a good one. Naturally, in the run up to a general election, Gove will be trying to show that he is full of radical ideas, even though the polls suggest we are now heading for a hung parliament in which he will never be allowed to put them into practice. (Or, possibly, unkindly, because he will never have to put them into practice). Nonetheless, he must be careful what he wishes for. There is no idea so bad that it does not run a chance of being acted upon in the right (wrong) circumstances.
So, why do I think this is a bad idea? Simply, because the problem of education in deprived areas is exactly not a failing of the education system itself. We know that British education works, because it produces people like Stephen Hawking, Tim Berners Lee, Paddy Ashdown, Reeta Chakrabarti, J K Rowling, and, indeed, Gove himself. Trinity College Cambridge (I have been told a number of times by people who went there) has more Nobel prize winners than the whole of France. True, Oxford and Cambridge pick up more students from the independent sector, but the independent sector operates (or did at least until the advent of the revised A-level system) the same educational approach and the same curriculum as state funded education. From this we can conclude that it is not the system which is the problem.
I lived for a number of years in deprived communities, and was a school governor both in a very well run comprehensive school in a wealthy area, and a nursery school in a deprived area. There are many reasons why children from deprived areas have much poorer life chances than those from wealthy areas. These reasons span political divides. Right-wingers would say that clever people move to wealthy areas and have clever children who collectively do well at school, giving those schools a good reputation which attract more clever children. It would be hard to deny this. Left-wingers would argue that structural injustice in society takes the people least able to make the most of their opportunities, and deprives them of even those opportunities. Again, it is very hard to build a credible case against this view. But, since both views have some truth, it is foolishness to support one while ignoring the other.
In Britain, we have one of the world’s better educational systems. It is uniquely suited to our culture, and it produces world-leading results in some. If we want it to be better, then we should work to improve it, not to tear it up by the roots and replace it with culturally alien models which are not even proven on their home ground.
Seriously, what education needs from politicians is that they support it and invest in it. Not that they interfere with it.