"Education, education, education." Despite 13 years in power, and six different education secretaries, Labour's record on schools was patchy. Standards at secondary level improved considerably, but, according to one London School of Economics study, "the improvement in primary schools since 2000 has been more muted". During the same period, middle-class parents pored ever more obsessively over school league tables and Ofsted reports, and monopolised the best state primary and secondary schools at the expense of poorer families.
Can this self-proclaimed "progressive" Tory-Lib Dem coalition do any better? The Conservatives' election manifesto correctly identified "improving our school system" as "the most important thing we can do to make opportunity more equal and address our declining social mobility". And in Michael Gove, the government has a clever and ambitious politician to push through its contentious programme to reform the country's schools.
The new Education Secretary - one of his first acts was to rename his department the Department for Education - is a fascinating character. A founding member of the "modernising" faction in the Conservative Party, and one of a handful of backbench MPs who urged an inexperienced David Cameron to stand for the leadership in 2005, Gove is, in the words of a friend who has known him since his student days at Oxford University, "a formidable debater, with a very sharp mind . . . [and a] very effective big-picture operator".
Heir to Blair
Gove was a pluralist long before Cameron exchanged vows with Nick Clegg. And he remains the Conservative frontbencher most likely to reach out across party lines in order to win hearts and minds - a useful quality for an Education Secretary facing a battle with the teaching unions. In the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, Gove expressed admiration for Tony Blair ("I can't fight my feelings any more: I love Tony"); he has also lavished praise on Andrew Adonis, the Blairite former schools minister and architect of Labour's education reform agenda. During the coalition negotiations last month, Gove even used a BBC interview to announce that he would be willing to give up his own cabinet seat to a Liberal Democrat.
His may have been the last major cabinet post to be filled during the horse-trading that led to the formation of the Con-Lib Dem coalition, but it would be a mistake to underestimate Gove's importance to Cameron. A member of the so-called Notting Hill set, Gove was one of only two Tory frontbenchers who attended the private family burial of the Prime Minister's son Ivan in March 2009. His wife, the columnist Sarah Vine, is a close friend of Samantha Cameron and often helps with the school run for the PM's two children, Nancy and Arthur.
Gove, charming and self-deprecating in person, is said to see himself as a future prime minister. As the adopted son of a Labour-supporting family in Aberdeen, whose adoptive father was a fish merchant, he would certainly command wider support than, say, the privileged George Osborne. One former colleague of the Education Secretary says he is "the politest man I have ever met". But for all his pluralist credentials, Gove is a card-carrying Eurosceptic right-winger, with a Thatcherite agenda for education. He has, for example, lined up two apologists for empire, Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson, to advise on a new history curriculum, and has scrapped the previous government's programme of extending free school meals to a further 500,000 low-income families. Moreover, he says he has "no ideological objection" to private companies seeking to profit from the running of academy schools.
According to Chris Husbands of the Institute of Education, the Tories' plans for a new generation of academies may well amount to the "most significant change in the school system in 45 years". Cameron and Gove are staking much of the government's "radical" reputation on their Academies Bill, which allows for up to 500 secondary and 1,700 primary schools to apply for academy status before September, thereby opting out of local-authority supervision. Sold to the public as a revolutionary act of localism and "parent power", the Academies Bill in fact disenfranchises parents. Instead, it empowers head teachers and governors, and hands huge powers to a single politician in Whitehall. "It is hard to escape the conclusion that this bill is undemocratic," the education barrister David Wolfe has said. "What it does is remove the public process. Nobody, apart from the Education Secretary and the governors, will be able to stop the process."
In any case, are more academies the answer? "There is no evidence that an expansion of the academies programme . . . would improve average educational attainment," said the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance in April. And a study carried out by the centre-right think tank Civitas in December 2009, found a "lack of expected transparency" in the exam results published by such schools. Because academies are exempted from the Freedom of Information Act, "We do not know how they are achieving their results at GCSE level."
Nonetheless, Gove has informed all schools judged "outstanding" by Ofsted that they have been "pre-approved" for academy status. But
if they are already outstanding, why meddle with them? Under Labour, academies at least had a somewhat noble aim: to replace "failing" schools in predominantly poorer areas. By contrast, the coalition is offering academy status, and the freedoms that go with it, to some of the most socially exclusive schools in the country.
Will there be resistance to Gove's plans? "You wouldn't want to find yourself on the right side of an argument against Michael, let alone the wrong side of one," says one friend of the Education Secretary. And the front-runners for the Labour leadership are compromised by their support for academies in office and their refusal to repent in opposition.
Labour has made much of the likely costs of Gove's reforms, but its opposition to this "rolling back of the state" across the education sector has to be based on principle, not affordability. We are heading towards a two-tier, market-orientated school system in which power is concentrated in the hands of the Secretary of State. So much for "progressive" Conservatism and the "big society".