Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, at the London Academy of Excellence in February 2014. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty.
Show Hide image

Our segregated education system perpetuates inequality and holds our nation back

The education secretary responds to the NS debate on public schools.

England’s oldest public school, Winchester, was founded in 1382 to educate 70 “poor scholars” in theology, canon and civil law and the arts. Eton, its younger sister, was established in 1440. According to the great classicist and historian of public schools Rex Warner, it was “modelled almost entirely on Winchester”. St Paul’s was established in 1509 to educate children of all backgrounds, “with no other charge than the sum of fourpence to be paid at admission”. Rugby was established in 1567 as a grammar school for the local poor. In similar vein, Harrow was founded in 1572 for the free education of the children of the neighbourhood.

It is then perhaps no surprise that, centuries on, there was considerable political disquiet at the way in which these foundations for poor scholars had come to provide so many benefits for the rich.

There was a sustained campaign to get the charity commissioners to regulate these schools because, in the eyes of one activist, “considerable unauthorised deviations have been made … from the original plans of the founders”.

That campaign ran from 1816 to 1818. And the activist was Henry Brougham, later Baron Brougham and Vaux, lord chancellor of Great Britain. His proposals for reform included having parliament administer the endowments of the great public schools for the greater public good. But a Tory majority in the House, concerned to defend property rights in the wake of revolutionary upheaval, thwarted the proposal.

At the time Brougham was leading his campaign, MPs sat in the Commons for rotten boroughs with corrupted electors, slavery was still legal in the British empire, women had no vote and no legislation existed to prevent children under the age of nine from working in factories.

Two hundred years later all those abuses and injustices are righted. But still the great public schools overwhelmingly educate the children of the rich.

In a masterly essay in the New Statesman two weeks ago, David and George Kynaston demonstrated, beyond challenge, that the wonderfully liberating education offered by our great public schools is overwhelmingly the preserve of the wealthy.

I write as an enthusiastic admirer of the education these schools provide. Their cultivation of intellectual curiosity, insistence on academic rigour and provision of character-building extracurricular activities help students to succeed in every field.

But while the education these schools provide is rationed overwhelmingly to the rich, our nation remains poorer. From the England cricket team to the comment pages of the Guardian, the Baftas to the BBC, the privately educated – and wealthy – dominate. Access to the best universities and the most powerful seats around boardroom tables, influence in our media and office in our politics are allocated disproportionately to the privately educated children of already wealthy parents.

We have one of the most stratified and segregated education systems in the developed world, perpetuating inequality and holding our nation back.

When a few public schools can scoop up more places at our top universities than the entire population of boys and girls eligible for free school meals, we are clearly wasting talent on an unforgivable scale.

Does anyone really believe the stranglehold of wealthier children on these university places, and the opportunities they bring, reflects the spread of talent in our country? Of course it doesn’t. We are still very far from living in the meritocratic society I believe is a moral imperative. 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.

But if our contemporary mute, inglorious Miltons are to be given a voice then we must all learn from the history of previous attempts to make opportunity more equal in Britain.

The answer is not to abolish, punish or undermine excellent educational institutions, but to spread their benefits without diluting their character. There is nothing any progressive should object to in a programme designed to democratise access to the best.

As R H Tawney argued, it is a positive social good for there to be schools wholly independent of the state in character, curriculum and governance, “on the ground that their existence is favourable to initiative, experiment and the diversity of educational type”. And indeed, the existence of public schools, while it may have perpetuated privilege, has also protected educational standards. Because these schools have preserved curricula and opted for exams, insulated from meddling politicians intent on driving down standards to create the illusion of progress.

The academies and free schools programme – started by Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis – has given state schools the independence over character, curricula and governance long enjoyed by public schools. With one important exception. They are democratic. Inclusive. Comprehensive.

And they are also contributing to an improvement in standards in state education. Sponsored academies are improving faster than other comparable schools, even as all state schools are showing sustained improvement. And the longer they have been open, the better the results.

The academies and free schools programme has, as Andrew Adonis noted, allowed 16 formerly fee-paying schools to enter the state system since 2010. They maintain their operational independence and high academic standards while becoming genuine community schools.

The academies and free schools programme also allows the great public schools to create models of themselves in the state sector – as Eton has done with a new state boarding school, and Eton, Brighton College and Westminster have all done with new sixth-form provision.

The United Church Schools Trust, originally a group of wholly fee-paying schools, now runs a chain of state schools, and livery companies such as the Mercers’, which used to operate only public schools like St Paul’s, now run superb state schools.

The Berlin Wall between state and private schools is crumbling.

Of course, there is more – much more – to do. That is why last week I outlined plans to help state schools poach great teachers from private schools, use the rigorous exams and curricula hitherto restricted to the private sector and move to a longer day, in line with public school practice, to make it easier to offer superb extracurricular activities.

I want our state schools to be able to compete on equal terms with private schools, so that a visitor to either would find them indistinguishable.

Of course, this ambition is a threat to some in the private sector. There are, unfortunately, some heads in the fee-paying sector who still hope to preserve their schools as islands of privilege and try to curry favour with educators in the state sector by sneering at the academies programme as an exercise in creating exam factories, and by criticising attempts to inject more rigour into state education as the rule of Gradgrind.

But this curious, attempted alliance between the ultra-reactionaries of the private sector and their imagined friends in state education is a chimera. Not least because a growing number of leaders in state education – especially those leading the most outstanding schools – know the academies programme gives them the opportunity to prove their superiority over the reactionaries within the private sector.

And they also know the academies and free schools programme gives them the chance to work hand in hand with the very best private schools. And the momentum for collaboration is growing. Tony Little’s leadership in proclaiming the moral imperative of schools such as Eton doing more to help poorer students; Richard Cairns’s leadership in getting Brighton College to work on terms of equality and partnership with great heads in the state sector like Joan Deslandes, and Andrew Adonis’s leadership in helping schools like Liverpool College and King’s, Tynemouth into the state sector, all point the way forward.

There may be an irony in an Old Etonian prime minister potentially presiding over the end of the exclusivity of the public school system and making English education truly democratic. But then it was an Old Haileyburian prime minister who established the National Health Service and the modern welfare state.

The history of our public schools, as the account of their foundation proves, is a story rich in surprises. Let us hope the next chapter is a happy ending.

Michael Gove is the Secretary of State for Education

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Getty
Show Hide image

Progressive voters must ditch party differences to gain a voice in Brexit Britain

It's time for politicians and activists to put aside their tribal loyalties.

The status quo has broken. British politics lies shattered into pieces, and even Brexiteers look stunned. We are in a new landscape. Anyone who tells you they have the measure of it is lying; but anyone reaching for old certainties is most likely to be wrong.
 
Through this fog, we can already glimpse some signposts. There will be a leadership election in the Tory Party within three months. While it is still unclear who will win, the smart money is on a champion of Brexit. The Leave camp are in the ascendancy, and have captured the hearts of most Tory members and voters.
 
The next Conservative prime minister will lack a clear mandate from voters, but will need one to successfully negotiate our exit from the EU. They will also see a golden opportunity to capture the working-class Leave vote from Labour – and to forge an even more dominant Conservative electoral coalition. UKIP too would fancy their chances of dismembering Labour in the north; their financier Arron Banks now has almost a million new registered supporters signed up through Leave.EU.
 
In this context, it seems inevitable that there will be another general election within six to twelve months. Could Labour win this election? Split, demoralised and flailing, it has barely begun to renew, and now faces a massive undertow from its heartlands. In this time of crisis, a party divided will find it difficult to prevail – no matter who leads it. And amidst all today’s talk of coups against Corbyn, it is currently tough to envisage a leader who could unite Labour to beat the Brexiteers.  
 
From opposite ends of the political spectrum, I and my Crowdpac co-founder Steve Hilton have been testing the possibilities of new politics for years. In this referendum I supported Another Europe Is Possible’s call to vote In and change Europe. But it is crystal clear that the Leave campaigns learnt many of the lessons of new politics, and are well positioned to apply them in the months and years to come. I expect them to make significant use of our platform for crowdfunding and candidate selection.

Time to build a progressive alliance

On the other side, the best or only prospect for victory in the onrushing general election could be a broad progressive alliance or national unity platform of citizens and parties from the centre to the left. Such an idea has been floated before, and usually founders on the rocks of party tribalism. But the stakes have never been this high, and the Achilles heels of the status quo parties have never been so spotlit.
 
Such an alliance could only succeed if it embraces the lessons of new politics and establishes itself on open principles. A coalition of sore losers from Westminster is unlikely to appeal. But if an open primary was held in every constituency to select the best progressive candidate, that would provide unprecedented democratic legitimacy and channel a wave of bottom-up energy into this new alliance as well as its constituent parties.
 
In England, such an alliance could gather together many of those who have campaigned together for Remain in this referendum and opposed Tory policies, from Labour to Greens and Liberal Democrats. It might even appeal to Conservative voters or politicians who are disenchanted with the Leave movement. In Scotland and Wales too, some form of engagement with the SNP or Plaid Cymru might be possible.
 
An electoral alliance built on open and democratic foundations would provide a new entry point to politics for the millions of young people who voted to stay in the EU and today feel despairing and unheard. Vitally, it could also make a fresh offer to Labour heartland voters, enabling them to elect candidates who are free to speak to their concerns on immigration as well as economic insecurity. I believe it could win a thumping majority.

A one-off renegotiation force

A central goal of this alliance would be to re-negotiate our relationship with Europe on terms which protect our economy, workers’ rights, and the interests of citizens and communities across the country. Work would be needed to forge a common agenda on economic strategy, public services and democratic reform, but that looks more achievable than ever as of today. On more divisive issues like immigration, alliance MPs could be given flexibility to decide their own position, while sticking to some vital common principles.
 
This idea has bubbled to the surface again and again today in conversations with campaigners and politicians of different parties and of none. What’s more, only a new alliance of this kind has any prospect of securing support from the new network movements which I helped to build, and which now have many more members than the parties. So this is no idle thought experiment; and it surely holds out greater hope than another rearranging of the deckchairs in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
 
The alliance would probably not last in this form beyond one parliamentary term. But during that time it could navigate us safely through these turbulent referendum seas, and lay foundations for a better country and a better politics in the coming decades. Food for thought, perhaps.
 
Paul Hilder is co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011. 

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is the Executive Director of Here Now, a movement lab working with partners around the world. He co-founded 38 Degrees and openDemocracy, helped launch Avaaz.org and served as Vice-President of Global Campaigns at Change.org. He has worked on social change in the UK and around the world, including in the political arena and with Oxfam and the Young Foundation.