In a political arena largely devoid of obvious talent Michael Gove is a star turn

Nelson Jones <3 Michael Gove.

I love Michael Gove. In an era of bland managerialist politicians the education secretary stands out for his wit, his openness to ideas and his genuine passion for his job. An interview with almost every other front-rank politician (with the exception, if he counts, of Boris Johnson) has become, even for political junkies, an excruciating self-torture, as carefully-rehearsed phrases cascade through the air, regardless of what question is actually being asked. Gove, by contrast, is a joy to listen to. In one recent exchange on World at One, he failed to dismiss entirely talk of Tory dissatisfaction with David Cameron's leadership in the wake of Ukip's recent advance. But he did give the English language a new word – "bonkerooney" – one that well encapsulates the effect he has on many of his detractors both within and without the world of education.

Gove was doing what he does best – or at least doing what he evidently most enjoys – yesterday, tweaking the noses of the educational establishment. Of course it's a truism of British politics that the minister (whether Labour or Conservative – remember David Blunkett?) must always pose as the lonely champion of parents and children against trendy educationalists and complacent teachers. Gove, though, does it with greater than average conviction. His latest speech, given to an audience of teachers from the private sector, garnered headlines largely because of one of the examples he used: a hitherto-obscure online resource that encouraged Year 11 iGCSE students to depict the rise of Hitler in terms of characters from the Mr Men books. The resource's creator accused Gove of "academic snobbery" and defended his concept as giving students a "challenge to get them to think about it in a different way." But it's hard not to see the concept as both infantile and in rather poor taste.

The example, no doubt, was an extreme one, but it served Gove's wider points about the need for rigour and high expectations in all parts of the school system, from the basics of reading and arithmetic, through the study of literature, history and the sciences to a panoply of extra-curricular activities. Teachers and parents should all be grateful for an education secretary who, in contrast to his predecessor Ed Balls who dropped the word from the title of his department, wants to put education at the centre of national life. Instead he has become a convenient hate-figure, his aims at times wilfully misunderstood.

Take history. Gove has been criticised for curriculum proposals based on dates, facts and "heroes and heroines" of British history. A group of leading historians condemned the proposals' "narrowness", claiming that they risked depriving children of "the vast bulk of the precious inheritance of the past" – by which they meant the study of other peoples and other places. There is indeed something naively Whiggish, to a professional historian, about his view of the subject as telling "the British story of progress". But national myths matter, however open to challenge on particular points of detail. Internalising the broad sweep of history, knowing who came after whom, is essential for a sense of rootedness in one's own culture. And children respond naturally to stories.

History can of course be used to teach analytical skills – skills that are needed properly to get to grips with the subject, indeed. But to concentrate on such an instrumental use of history risks reducing it to discrete nuggets of unconnected and interchangeable material. The internal politics of the Ming dynasty is just as fascinating, objectively, as that of the Tudors, and may with the rise of China become just as "relevant", but it will never be part of the mental furniture of this nation, something that every grounded citizen needs to know. That's why teaching children history should begin with facts, and only then start worrying about interpretation.

The same is true of literature, where again Michael Gove is often criticised for his insistence that children be taught the classics and even memorise poetry. What of creativity and imagination? Well, you can have creativity without a solid grounding in facts – most children are naturally expressive – but imagination needs materials to work with. The best creative writers, and even many "trashier" ones (such as the former Member for Corby) tend to have English degrees. Even those that don't are invariably wide and deep readers.

The techniques used to dissect and analyse literature are, as with history, transferable skills with which young people in the modern world need to be equipped. But, again as with history, studying great literature is valuable for its own sake as well. You can teach the same analytical techniques by studying King Lear or last night's episode of EastEnders. In the second case, you've learned to analyse a text. In the first case, you've learnt to analyse a text and you've read King Lear.

In yesterday's speech, Gove wondered allowed if most parents would rather their 17 year old daughter read Twilight or Middlemarch. It's a telling example; and it's not enough to reply that it's better to be turned on to reading by Stephanie Meyer's vampire saga than turned off by George Eliot. It wasn't Gove's point, exactly, but the message sent out to teenage girls by the Twilight is reactionary and dismal in the extreme: save yourself, act submissive and you too may end up with a drop-dead gorgeous immortal on your arm. Stay away from werewolves. Middlemarch, by contrast, though 150 years older, features a free-thinking, active and educated heroine. If we want our daughters to aspire, which provides the better role model?

Of course there's a powerful strain of nostalgia in Gove's vision, easily caricatured as a desire to return to the bad old days of rote-learning and corporal punishment. But his message is more forward-looking and aspirational than that. There's nothing right-wing, as such, about a firm grounding in basic grammar, however much insisting old-fashioned notions of right and wrong may displease sentimentalists like Michael Rosen. Education has always been the greatest engine of social progress and upward mobility, ever since the butcher's son Thomas Wolsey rose to become the chief minister of Henry VIII. Progressive notions of education in the state sector have given us a cabinet dominated by Old Etonians for the first time in fifty years. Gove, himself a scholarship boy, offers a way out: back to basics, perhaps, but also back to the future.

Yesterday Gove also imagined – gender stereotype alert – a parent seeing her teenage son hunched over a laptop. "You steal a look over his shoulder – and what would please you more – to see him playing Angry Birds, or coding?" Again, he has a point, though I wonder if mention of the addictive iPhone game might not be a subtle dig at David Cameron, who has admitted his own penchant for the kamikaze pig-smashers. It's not enough to reply that in either case the mother would no doubt be relieved that the boy wasn't staring at porn.

Earlier this year I was at a lecture in Cambridge given by Eric Schmidt of Google. Schmidt recalled the stir he caused at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011 when he lamented the decline of computer science in schools in favour of an IT curriculum focused on learning to use software. This time he had a different message. "You have a hero in government," he declared, before outlining a new initiative to teach coding in schools. "His name is Michael Gove." The sentiment went down like the proverbial lead balloon with the predominantly academic audience. It may have been an exaggeration – only time will tell whether his reforms to the curriculum and to school organisation take root and yield fruit – but in a political arena largely devoid of obvious talent he is a star turn.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.