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?

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.