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?

Facebook/The National At-Home Dad Network
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It harms women more than men when dads doing parenting are seen as “babysitters”

In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

“Dads don’t babysit (it’s called ‘parenting’).” So says the T-shirt created by Al Ferguson of The Dad Network, in response to the assumption that a father seen caring for his own offspring is simply playing the role of temporary childminder.

The t-shirt has prompted a great deal of debate, not to mention marketing opportunities (you can already buy a “my dad doesn’t babysit” onesie for your little one). It seems more and more fathers want to be recognised as equal carers, and who can blame them?

From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to see why describing fathers as “babysitting” their own children is a bad idea. It lowers the expectations placed on fathers, putting them on a level with people who have no emotional ties to their children and are merely providing a service.

It feeds into the myth that when it comes to wiping bottoms and drying tears, fathers are amateurs while mothers are naturals.

It suggests that childcare remains the sole responsibility of mothers, who should therefore be grateful should any man bother to “help them out”.

It’s rare to see mothers described as “babysitting” their own children. On the contrary, one is either “being a mother” – doing what mothers do, without receiving any particular recognition for it – or one is guilty of neglect.

To that extent, I’m with the dads. I don’t want them to be seen as mere babysitters any more than you do. And yet there’s something about the testimonies of some of the “babysitting” dads of reddit that I can’t help but find annoying. Sure, their parenting efforts aren’t always appreciated – but do they have to be quite so self-pitying about it?

Take this complaint appearing in the “Dads don’t babysit” thread, for instance:

“Watch comedy shows about families. Dad is always the bumbling but loveable fool, mom is the strict, way too good looking, poor woman who has to put up with all of this.”

Poor men. Poor, poor men. And lucky, lucky women for being the beneficiaries of gender stereotypes that would appear not to bear any resemblance whatsoever to real life.

Except that’s not quite true. While the number of stay-at-home fathers in the UK has risen, it remains relatively low at 16 per cent of all stay-at-home parents. In heterosexual couples where both parents are in paid employment, women continue to take on the majority of household tasks and childcare responsibilities. While carework is seen as the key reason why mothers earn less than childfree women, men with children earn more than men without.

Moreover, there is evidence that men tend to cherrypick when it comes to the type of childcare they are willing to perform. Kicking a ball about in the park is one thing; taking time off work to look after a sick child is quite another.

Of course, when I say “men” I mean #notallmen. But enough men to make it somewhat galling when “fathers being seen as mere babysitters” is presented as an injustice not just to women, but to men.

The trouble is, when it comes to how children are cared for, many fathers do behave more like babysitters. They get to do the fun tasks; they don’t end up out-of-pocket; they’re not expected to stick around to clear up afterwards. Not all men are like this, but is it really fair to pretend that current divisions of labour are more equitable than they really are?

This is a common dilemma for feminists when dealing with gender. Do we let language run ahead of reality on the basis that this in itself will change expectations of what should be, creating a virtuous circle of cause and effect?

Or do we assume, as I tend to, that any linguistic manoeuvre suggesting that equality has already been achieved will be used to suggest that women have nothing left to fight for?

After all, we’ve already been told, for years on end, that “perhaps the pendulum has swung too far”. Alas, it’s utter nonsense. The “pendulum” remains one massive swinging dick, swooping between boorish laddism on one side and performative new man-ism on the other. Women don’t even get a look-in.

It’s easier to be frustrated at gender stereotypes than it is to remember why they exist in the first place. Inequality between men and women is so deeply ingrained – and so pathetically mundane – that we forget beliefs about men and women’s “essential” selves have anything to do with it.

We treat the imposition of gender roles as equally unfair on both men and women, failing to register that it is through these assumed roles that men have acquired the vast majority of the world’s wealth and resources. When men suffer due to gender, it is a side-effect; when women suffer, that’s because it’s the whole sodding point.

Thus a woman trying to gain acceptance while performing what is traditionally seen as a “man’s” role is not in the same position as a man performing a “woman’s” role. The woman will eventually crash into the glass ceiling, while the man may well find himself on board the glass escalator instead.

From a male perspective, this particular privilege is experienced as a mixed blessing. To their credit, some commenters on the reddit thread note how the criteria for being a wonderful dad can end up the same as those for being a terrible mother:

“When my kids were little I’d take them to the playground and chase them around a little bit then settle in on a bench and look at my phone while they played. I can’t count the number of times people walked up to me while I was essentially just airing out my kids, and told me that I was a wonderful father. Meanwhile when my wife took them to the playground, when she sat on a bench and talked with her friends, people would tsk tsk her for not attending to our kids 100% of the time.”

The belief that men are not natural carers heightens the value of the caring work they do, whereas the belief that women are not natural, say, artists or politicians leads to them having to work several times as hard to be taken seriously. In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

We all deserve to be recognised for the roles we perform. Nonetheless, there’s a difficult balance to be made between reflecting the ways things are and the way they should be. When it comes to shared parenting, I’d like to assume that we all want the same thing. But if that were the case, devoted dads, surely we’d already have it by now? And since we haven’t yet been there and done that, is it really time to be getting the t-shirt?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.