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Michael Gove MP on the benefits of education

Gove_michael_in_parliament Michael Gove speaking yesterday in the commons (Hansard):

"Some people argue that the goal of ever-higher participation in education is wrong, and object to extending educational opportunity. I accept that the Secretary of State is legitimately concerned about those views, and I, too, want to explain why I think that they are wrong. The first argument that I would deploy is unashamedly personal. No one in my family had gone to university, and both my parents left school early. I know how education can transform opportunities. I would never want any child to lose out on opportunity through a lack of parental resources...

My second argument involves social justice. We know that access to educational opportunity is a critical determinant of future earnings and of well-being. At the moment, educational opportunity is unequally distributed. Contrary to the impression given by the Secretary of State in his speech, figures that we excavated over the Christmas period show that the gap between the academic performance in the most advantaged 10 per cent. of schools and that in the least advantaged 10 per cent. has grown and is growing. It is a source of deep concern to us that that should be so. Work by the Sutton Trust and others has confirmed the melancholy correlation between deprivation and academic achievement. We believe that there needs to be a concerted drive to tackle that unfairness and to extend opportunity. We can do that by tackling illiteracy and innumeracy in the earliest years. That, once again, will open up the prospect of academic excellence to many, many more.

If the drive succeeds and the number of individuals from poorer backgrounds staying on to 18 in education increases and if the number going on to university or equivalent institutions begins to catch up with the equivalent number for those from more fortunate backgrounds who are already enjoying such opportunity, the university population will clearly increase. That is our aim. To those who say that that is idealistic, I plead guilty, and I ask those who say that it is impossible to spend a little time looking at geography and then history.

First, let us consider geography. Across the globe, the participation rate in further and higher education is rising. In Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, Norway, the United States and even Poland, the number of young people going to university is higher than the proportion who currently do so here. In South Korea and Taiwan, the numbers participating in equivalent institutions is also rising fast. In China and India, of course, the participation rate is rocketing.

As to history, I would like the House to recall the experience of one minority community in Britain. Its members came here, often fleeing persecution, with few resources and little in the way of marketable qualifications more than 100 years ago. They found jobs in sweatshops, retail, low-level commerce and other unskilled or low-skilled environments. Yet within 100 years or so—the space of two or three generations—that community has reached a point where it sends 80 per cent. of its young people to university. That community, the Jewish community, is—in education, as in so many other areas—an example to us all. I see no reason why other minority communities might not aspire to similar levels of participation or why we as a nation should not be inspired by that community’s example...

I have mentioned history and geography in respect of increasing participation in education, but it is also important, in deference to the Secretary of State, to mention economics. As well as personal conviction and social justice, economic imperatives also drive the case for greater participation in education. The Leitch report, to which the Secretary of State referred, is the latest in a long line of analyses of Britain’s educational underperformance. With specific reference to vocational skills, we have had reports on educational underperformance going right back to 1868.

Lord Leitch is very specific about the number of jobs that he believes will be available to those without skills in 2020—just 600,000, he argues. I myself am wary about predicting with such uncanny precision the specific demand for particular types of labour in an open marketplace in 14 years’ time. Some economists argue that the labour market of the future will be much more fluid than Lord Leitch envisages. However, I very much agree with the broader point that the more highly skilled and the better educated our work force—all other things being equal, as I was taught to say in my higher economics—the higher our overall productivity will be...

I should add one other rider to the economic arguments in favour of increasing educational participation. There are those who argue that educational achievement is primarily a positional good—a way of demarcating people’s position in a hierarchy so as to secure a better reward proportionate to that of those below them. Those who make that argument contend that qualifications are basically a way of separating sheep from goats. I reject that case. I believe that the more people who have acquired meaningful qualifications, the better. There should be no arbitrary cap on the number who might acquire any qualification, and the creation of communities and a society in which learning is highly valued and knowledge widely dispersed is enriching for everyone."


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