Stories + Views
Michael Gove claims that private schools’ domination of positions of power is “morally indefensible” – so why is he doing so little to encourage social cohesion?
The Guardian today reports that in a speech at Brighton College, which has just been named “Independent School of the Year”, Michael Gove declared that the dominance of public schoolboys in the upper echelons of politics, business, the arts and sport was “morally indefensible”.
At first glance, his speech seemed to suggest that Gove had seen the error of his and his party’s ways and that Cameron had entrusted him to step out of the inner circle into the limelight to apologise for policies which have widened social divisions, increased child poverty, dragged us into a double dip recession, driven unemployment figures to sky high levels and forced through educational policies which clearly favour the already advantaged.
But no. All Gove did was to use the occasion to give yet another insubstantial and unconvincing extended sound bite about how his schools policies were going to
make sure that all children would reach their potential, no matter how disadvantaged their background. Implausibly claiming to believe in “social justice”, he states that “this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”
Actually, what is morally indefensible is his party’s savaging and abandonment of the poor in this country, upon whom they have inflicted welfare cuts and the withdrawal of many vital public services and tax benefits at a time when his public school educated multi-millionaire Chancellor and Prime Minister have stubbornly pushed ahead with an austerity budget, with zero growth, which has tipped even more people into unemployment and poverty. The austerity budget has not affected the wealthy – in fact, they are the ones enjoying tax relief in Cameron’s “Big Society” in which the richest are most certainly “not in it together” with the rest of us.
If he truly believed in social justice, Gove might look at the state of the large numbers of dilapidated schools up and down the country in urgent and desperate need of renovation and maintenance, many in areas of deprivation where the children go from one unhealthy environment to another. But no – he chooses to let these schools rot, instead incentivizing schools with large cash payments to cut themselves adrift from local authorities to face an uncertain future as Academies.
Instead of spreading the depleted capital budget on saving schools from rack and ruin, he will end up giving hundreds of millions of pounds to a small number of so-called Free Schools educating a tiny minority of children, a sizeable number of which are fee paying schools “downgrading” or taking advantage of the way Gove has redefined what a state school is. How lucky for those struggling to pay the fees to have their children stay on at what has now become, literally, a free school. Quite how the local poor get into these ex-private schools remains a mystery and, in any case, survey after analysis shows that free schools are not serving the most disadvantaged.
Gove might like to put his social conscience where his mouth his and start with closing down private schools and, in one remove, dismantling the educational and social barriers that have inhibited social mobility for decades. But he won’t do this because the very foundations of the Tory party – built for, paid by and to sustain the pillars of wealth, privilege and hierarchy – would crumble.
His speech wasn’t really about private schools’ contribution to maintaining an unjust society. I suspect that what he is doing is pointing a vaguely unflattering light on private schools so that, when we realise more and more of them are sponsoring (or interfering with) Academies and Free Schools we should doff our caps and feel grateful that our betters have condescended to sort out the “mess” that is our “broken” state school system.
Morally indefensible also is Gove’s unpleasant and barely concealed attack on those he would no doubt dismiss as “Trots” –such as the entire editorship of the Guardian, the BBC, left-wing commentators such as George Monbiot, Seamus Milne and Laurie Penney, all of whom have been a constant and painful thorn in the side of Gove and the shared ideology of his cabinet and party cronies. Yes, they were privately educated (as are some in the Labour party, which he gleefully and foot-shootingly points out) but, admirably, they also want to challenge the system and the status quo of inherited privilege.
The whiff of hypocrisy doesn’t pervade these writers or anyone else born to greater privilege who campaigns for greater social equality. The hypocrisy is Gove’s, for shedding crocodile tears for the poor and helpless that his own party is casually and coldly pushing over into social oblivion. Get ready for the Tory condemnation of the young who will riot in years to come, the explosion of a lost generation of both educated and uneducated people who may never work. They will blame bad schools, bad parents, bad gangs but it will be their policies which separate master from servant, rich from poor that will force the excluded from society onto burning streets, so they can grab a little of what has been denied them and been handed over willingly to the included.
Instead of a speech which fetishises public school boys (where are the privately educated girls? Don’t they count in Gove’s social landscape, or are they as insignificant as Nadine Dorries’ contributions in the House?), Gove might like to present some concrete evidence or even argument that his policies have some chance of increasing attainment and social mobility in this country when his high stakes, test driven, discipline-heavy, punitive measures have failed elsewhere.
He would do well to justify his support of social justice when he has given the green light for grammar schools to open up “satellite” schools in areas like Kent so that a few more people can exercise their democratic “choice” by disposing some of their income on preparing their children from age 5 on how to navigate their way round an 11+ paper, thereby negating the chances of a child from a family whose priority is to just put bread and tap water on the table.
Instead of focusing on an already “posh” sport – cricket – in a futile attempt to evidence that sport is similarly dominated by private schoolboys, Gove might like to ponder, then articulate the truth, that footballers don’t tend to bray “Yah” when they score a goal. Instead of pretending the arts and culture is brimming over with Chris Martins, he should educate himself and learn that the music industry is, in fact, populated by artists whose parents didn’t pay for their schooling – Adele, Jessie J, Professor Green. The arts has always been historically much more radical and inclusive – talent and originality count there for a lot more than whether you were born with the burden of a silver spoon in your mouth. Or silverplated, in Gove’s case.
Like so many of his type, he’s best left to pandering to the egos and bolstering interests of people like Rupert Murdoch and the ruling class. He lacks the vision, talent or originality of the great people – private or state educated – who challenge his party’s ideology.