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

Photo: Getty
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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.