In an increasingly complex world, the education secretary needs to look less to the past and modernise his approach to schools
Poor Michael Gove. Pity comes grudgingly. In a Cameron Cabinet where self-doubt is scarce, the secretary for education is self-assured in the extreme. Gove cultivates anachronism, fantasising about recreating his glorious youth at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen – all blazers and inkwells and ferocious competition. His policies lurch between anarchy (free schools and untrammelled parental choice), and a centralising push to prescribe content and forms that even Tory columnist Sir Simon Jenkins calls ‘Soviet’.
And yet sympathy is due – even for a minister who wanted to spend scarce public money to dispatch an autographed copy of the King James Bible to all schools – at least for the role.
Children are our future. Even in an ageing society, schools carry fervent aspirations. Yet they remain mysterious places: education (compared to health and other social policy domains) is peculiarly evidence-free. What’s the formula for a ‘good school’, beyond exam passes? Research on class size, teaching method, home influence and individual ability is hotly contested.
Ministers (including Gove’s predecessors) talk of ‘freedom’ and choice. But learning also involves coercion and indoctrination. Autonomy for heads and governors, he says; in the next breath, students must do his Victorian version of ‘our island story’.
Schools are the site of ambitions that are elsewhere suppressed or disguised, around class, gender, race and (think Kenneth Baker) nation. Schools remain the cynosure of extraordinary, Utopian hopes. The political Left dreams they can unite a fissiparous and unequal society; the Right wants them to freeze time and halt unruly social and attitudinal shifts.
Of course, the ‘governance’ of education matters. Critics say that Gove is dismantling the 1944 education settlement, excluding elected councillors from all but the most marginal roles in running primary and secondary schools (having been jettisoned from higher and further education by former Tory governments). That matters for accountability, but, given councils’ uneven track record, will it matter for outcomes?
For all his cockiness, the puzzle about Gove is how unsure his touch is. GCSEs need revision, but where’s his vision for embracing vocational strands (which he seems to despise) or – 68 years too late – a redemption of the 1944 promise to give technology-oriented schooling a fair shot at recognition and resources?
Gove wants an ‘English baccalaureate’, but this would only work if it ended the dogmatism around A level. And while an ‘A bacc’ looks attractive, how will Gove keep the universities, with their highly specialised 18+ exams, on board while protecting his bid for Tory leadership?
Standards aren’t for their own sake. Schools matter because, whatever adult programmes and catch-ups can do, it’s in the years from five to 18 that skills, habits and knowledge are gained – and it is on that training that our prosperity, growth prospects, culture and social equilibrium depend.
The world is getting more complex. Cognitive demands grow. Schools have to ask for more – more knowledge, more capacity, more adaptability – as they become even more complex places.
That means more maths and stats – unavoidably. It’s also technological aptitude (for ‘creative’ types as well), languages, all manner of preparation for the changing shape of UK exports and opportunities. Get modern, Gove, and start talking about the mental furniture of twenty-first century England.
And take David Cameron at his word about spreading Etonian privilege around. Schools spending is investment. Education deserves its own section in the national accounts, along with infrastructure and capital spending capacity. We could readily forgive Gove his intrigues and foppishness if only he consistently confronted his colleagues in the Cameron Cabinet with the urgency (and necessary expense) of supporting schools in their incredibly difficult task.
This article was first published in the November issue of Public Finance